TAMPA — After tea partiers packed an east Hillsborough megachurch to standing-room-only Sunday night, after they were told jeering, heckling and animal noises were encouraged, after they heard an emcee call Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a WINO — "wife in name only" — they heard from the people they were there to see:
Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.
"Welcome to TheTeaParty.Net Unity Rally!" Bachmann said. "Who's proud to be a tea partier now? I'm so proud of you. You have even braved a hurricane to come to Tampa."
The crowd laughed when the congresswoman from Minnesota and former presidential hopeful made a joke about Hurricane Joe Biden.
"That's right. We already dispatched that hurricane from coming this week. Now, we're going to dispatch the entire Obama-Biden ticket!"
She spoke of President Barack Obama's spending as funding "one boondoggle project after another," called the financial bailout a failure and the Affordable Care Act "socialized medicine."
"We believe we have been taxed enough already!" she said.
Bachmann told those in the crowd to congratulate themselves, because their values are now part of the Republican platform.
In the audience, a large man with red cheeks screamed, "You go, girl!"
The crowd lined up outside the River at Tampa Bay Church wearing red, white and blue. They photographed themselves with men in colonial garb and clutched signs depicting the president as Pinocchio. Giant screens projected prayers from inside, as a woman handed out a pamphlet titled "9/11 Stealth Jihad and Obama."
The rally was promoted to unite tea partiers under a message of "limited government, personal responsibility and fiscal sanity."
But for Sandra Stuart, a 59-year-old nurse from Ormond Beach, the most important issue was this: "Freedom, freedom, freedom. Freedom to do what you want as long as it's under the word of God. Traditional marriage."
She said she would have preferred to vote for Bachmann in November, but like most people who spoke with the Times, she said she liked the Republican ticket more after Mitt Romney's choice of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.
"He's just like my daddy," she said of the Wisconsin legislator. "He's a deer-hunting, Bible-thumping, gun-toting conservative Republican family man."
Ruth Feller, 63, of St. Petersburg agreed about the pick.
"Although one's a Mormon and he's a Catholic, they still believe there's an actual God," she said.
Feller acknowledged the fact that the president identifies himself as Christian, and though her friend made references to the false notion that Obama is not American — about which Romney made a comment this past week that he later called a joke — Feller said Obama was raised on the other side of the world.
"That's where he ate the dog."
But Gail and Dennis Silkebakken of Sarasota, like others, said the most important issue to them was the economy.
"I'm not a greedy old person who just has to have my Medicare," Gail said. "I want my entitlements curbed so my grandchildren don't have debt."
After he was lauded for his "tremendous Reagan-esque qualities," the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, Herman Cain, took the stage.
The former presidential candidate said he wasn't disappointed that he wasn't speaking at the Republican National Convention. "It's not about me," he said.
He spoke of the unemployment rate and the impending "taxmageddon" if the president and Congress do nothing to solve the nation's fiscal problems. He told the crowd not to be distracted from the fact that the economy is the most important issue of the election.
"Stay informed of the facts," he said. "Stay informed.
"Because stupid people are ruining America."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.