ST. AUGUSTINE — Thousands of determined tea party activists converged in a park in America's oldest city Saturday and heard a succession of candidates promise to heed their demands for less government and lower taxes.
Small-business owners, retirees, veterans and even government workers spoke with one voice: They want ideological purity from politicians.
They want government to take less of their money and leave them alone. They said they are sick of deficits, career politicians and RINOs (Republicans in name only) who say all the right things while running but fail to deliver. They said the political elites have no idea how strongly everyday people feel that the government is broken and America is not living up to expectations.
The four-hour "Forward with the Constitution Rally" was organized by tea party groups in an 11-county region in northeast Florida, and was far and away the largest event of the 2010 campaign season in Florida.
If the rally had a headliner, it was Marco Rubio, the U.S. Senate candidate who received a thunderous welcome at high noon under a brilliant sun.
"This election is nothing less than a referendum of our identity as a nation and as a people," Rubio said, calling 2010 a historic moment "when people were pushed to the brink." When he complained of go-along-to-get-along Republican politicians, people in the audience chimed in, "That's right."
Rubio, who faces Democrat Kendrick Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist running as an independent, exuded confidence.
It was a very bad day for President Barack Obama and the federal health care mandate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the mainstream media, activist judges, Crist and career politicians of any stripe, including Republicans.
"We want less government, less taxes, less socialism and more capitalism. Free market enterprise," said Kristan Malin, 47, a real estate agent in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Lanny Wilson, a 55-year-old firefighter from Fleming Island, said the new health care program "is out of control and I think we do need to repeal and replace. It was shoved down our throats." Like many here, he did not express anger as much as disappointment, and he wanted it known that tea party people are not zealots. "It's the Joe Six-Packs of America," he said.
Speaker after speaker tossed red-meat to the audience. "Fox News isn't fair and balanced, they're right," said Pam Bondi, the GOP nominee for attorney general and a Fox News analyst.
Others who spoke included gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott; chief financial officer candidate Jeff Atwater; Mike Yost, a GOP candidate for Congress; and Alex Snitker, the Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. Senate. "I just want to be left alone," Snitker said. "I don't know how to run your life and I know the federal government doesn't, either."
Scott was the last to address the crowd, which had thinned to fewer than 1,000 by the time he arrived after working a Jacksonville gun show. But he was well-received and he stayed for a half- hour shaking hands and signing autographs.
Scott repeated pledges to shrink government, cut taxes and regulation, add 700,000 jobs in seven years and "quit earmarks" in the state budget. He wants to "build companies around our state universities.''
The first-time candidate focused a good part of his 15-minute speech on criticism of Obama, Washington and the federal government.
"Everything Obama is doing is killing our jobs," Scott said. "It's killing our jobs, it's creating debts and deficits that our kids and our grandkids are going to have to pay for."
Some Republicans remain cool to Scott, with his link to a Medicare fraud scandal at the Columbia/HCA hospital chain he once headed. Penny Velie, 57, said that as a nurse practitioner, she had knowledge of how Scott ran his hospitals.
"I'm going to vote for him because he's a Republican, and he's more conservative than what's out there, but that was not my first choice," Velie said, declining to comment further on Scott's background.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.