ORLANDO, Fla. -- Andrea Shea King stood backstage during Thursday night's Tea Party rally at Lake Eola Park here, where thousands turned out on a cool, overcast evening to raise their voices for liberty.
"You should have been here in March," said King, who spoke at one of the earliest rallies in what has since become a nationwide phenomenon. "It was mobbed -- and the media barely paid attention."
The media are paying attention now. They have no choice. Over the past nine months, hundreds of thousands of citizens have answered the Tea Party movement's call to direct involvement in politics. Their activism has ignited the spark that now threatens to incinerate the agenda of Hope and Change that once seemed impervious to conservative opposition.
Nine months ago, commodities analyst Rick Santelli was interviewed from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade about the stimulus-and-bailout policies of the new administration. At 8:11 am. Eastern time on Feb. 19, Santelli launched into a rant that instantly became a YouTube classic.
Turning to the commodities traders in Chicago, Santelli asked: "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage who has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" He was answered with a chorus of jeers.
"President Obama, are you listening?" Santelli then asked. "We're thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July. All of you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing it."
Santelli didn't have to organize. His rant on CNBC inspired other Americans to emulate the spirit of the original Boston Tea Party in 1773. They spontaneously staged rallies in their communities, far from Chicago. The Tea Party movement begun that February morning has been supported by major conservative institutions -- including FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity -- but the movement itself is organic, generated by the passions of the people who turn out for the events.
Ron and Kay Rivoli, a musical duo who have performed at more than 70 events on two Tea Party Express tours, estimate they have appeared before crowds totaling in excess of 350,000 -- not including the 9/12 March On Washington, which drew a throng that topped a million, according to some estimates.
Protest songs like "USSA" and "Big Fat No" have made the Rivolis celebrities on the Tea Party circuit and earned them an appearance on Mike Huckabee's Fox News program. A similar newfound fame has enveloped others associated with the movement, including Kenneth Gladney, who was beaten up while selling flags at a St. Louis town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.). Gladney spoke at Thursday's Lake Eola Park rally where he waved the Gadsden Flag and invoked its famous revolutionary motto, "Don't Tread On Me."
More than anything else, the Tea Party protests encouraged conservatives who seemed downtrodden and dispirited in the wake of Barack Obama's electoral landslide of a year ago. Some have cited Tea Party activists as the grassroots foot soldiers who helped produce the off-off-year victories for Republicans in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections.
Yet this uprising of "patriots," as the Tea Party people proudly call themselves, also threatens to disturb the GOP status quo.
It is something of an ironic accident that the Tea Party Express tour's final stop was here in Orlando. Florida has become the Alamogordo Test Range for the Tea Party movement's mushrooming power, and this state's Republican establishment may soon feel the thermonuclear blast. As The American Spectator's Tampa-based Larry Thornberry reports today, Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer and Gov. Charlie Crist have found themselves in the crosshairs of reinvigorated populist sentiment.
The grassroots energy that has made Crist's Senate primary challenger Marco Rubio a hero to conservatives resembles one of the tropical storms that so frequently strike the Florida coast: powerful, unpredictable and capable of inflicting cataclysmic damage wherever it makes landfall.
The Tea Party movement has drawn into politics people who have seldom been part of the process before. At last night's Lake Eola Park event, a woman in blue jeans distributed orange flyers advertising a "Freedom Rally" scheduled for February's annual Bike Week in Daytona Beach. When hell-raisers on Harleys come roaring into the national debate, who can predict the outcome?
"Hey, Pelosi, You Don't Speak for Me!" one handmade poster in the Orlando crowd proclaimed. "We are the American People and We're Not Going Away!"
Rick Santelli asked in February if Obama was listening. Is he listening now?
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