NASHVILLE — Yes, there were the handful of Revolutionary War re-enactors with their powdered wigs and tri-corner hats. And the guy with the T-shirt proclaiming himself a proud member of the "Tennessee MOB" — a poke at politicians who dismissed Tea Partiers as an "angry mob." And one speaker did insist that Jesus' birth was better documented than President Barack Obama's.
But at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention here this weekend, gone were the placards protesters had carried last year with Obama's face wearing a Hitler mustache, or superimposed on the Joker. Gone, really, were any placards, unless you count the poster of Sarah Palin in her signature red jacket that someone had hung from one of the wrought iron balconies of the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center.
Organizers said that anyone who had shown up "looking too crazy" would have been tossed out. They had a goal that it turned out pretty much everyone here shared: to turn the Tea Party into a serious political force, rather than the anger-filled, fringe group they say they have been branded as.
"The movement is maturing," said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, the social networking site that sponsored the convention. "The rallies were good for last year, because that's what we could do last year. This year we have to change things. We have got to win."
In her remarks Saturday night, Palin called the deficit in Obama's 2011 budget "immoral" and added that because it increases the national debt, it amounted to "generational theft."
Palin also said the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day was evidence that the Obama administration doesn't understand the war on terror.
She said questioning the suspect and then reading him his Miranda rights is not the way to treat an alleged terrorist. She says that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab does not deserve the constitutional rights U.S. soldiers are willing to die for and that it's time the nation had a commander in chief, not a professor at a lectern.
The audience was filled with fans of Palin. With a dash of familiarity, many say they didn't vote for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008 — they voted for "Sarah." Quite a few see her as the right person to carry their limited-government, low-tax, freedom-fighting mantle.
The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee isn't saying whether she'll run for president in 2012.
The movement's goal is electing a conservative Congress in 2010 and a conservative president in 2012. To that end, organizers announced the formation of a political action committee they say could steer $10 million to conservative challengers this year.
And the convention tried to channel anger into what Phillips called "Electioneering 101."
"What we want people to do is to leave here connected with other activists, so they can recruit good candidates, get candidates exposed to the voters, and get voters to the polls," he said. "If we just go out and hold signs and protest, that's not going to win the election."
Despite the convention and its neat PowerPoint presentations, the movement that began a year ago to protest government bailouts and health care legislation showed signs this weekend that it is still inchoate, diverse and almost defiantly leaderless.
"This movement doesn't need a leader," said Anthony Shreeve of the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition, which did not take part this weekend but staged a counternews conference outside. "It's a 'We the People' movement."
Tea Party Nation said it had invited the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees to speak with delegates in town-hall-style sessions. Tea Partiers argue that Republicans are just as complicit as Democrats in the expansion of Big Government, so perhaps neither would have felt welcome.
But organizers said they never heard back from the Democratic National Committee, and while the Republican chairman, Michael Steele, expressed interest, he later declined, citing "scheduling issues," which Phillips called "really regrettable."
"Are they scared of you?" asked a reporter from French radio, one of several foreign journalists covering the convention.
"They should be," Phillips said.
Among those represented here were some old conservative players, like Young Americans for Freedom and Judicial Watch. But the convention was bleeding sponsors and participants right up to its opening day because of accusations from other Tea Party groups that Tea Party Nation, which is unapologetically for-profit, was profiteering. Tea Party Patriots, another social networking site with ties to FreedomWorks, the Washington advocacy powerhouse led by Dick Armey, the former Republican House leader, suggested to its members that the ticket price was too high: $549, or $349 to see only Palin.
Reports were that Palin's fee was $100,000.
The delegates certainly didn't show a lack of energy.
At a panel discussion titled "Defeating Liberalism via the Primary Process," the room erupted in a standing ovation when Barbee Kinnison, a delegate from Nevada, stood up and declared her intention to unite Tea Party groups behind a candidate to defeat Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader.
As the session ended a few moments later, people charged toward her to exchange cell phone numbers and pledges of support. "You need to come to California and help us defeat Nancy Pelosi," one woman said.
Sen. Scott Brown, the newly sworn-in Republican from Massachusetts, was not here, but his presence was everywhere, his victory cited as an example of how the Tea Party could turn anger into power.
Mark Skoda, the leader of the Memphis party, said the energy at the march on Washington in September excited him.
"Then nothing happened," he said. "A million and a half people, and the president sort of ignored us. That's when people realized we had to do more."
The actual crowd at the march was far smaller, estimated as perhaps in the tens of thousands.
They got close, he said, with the special congressional election in New York's 23rd District, where a third-party conservative drove a moderate Republican from the race, then lost to a Democrat by a few thousand votes.
But then came what he called Brown's "earthquake," winning a seat that had been held by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy for nearly half a century.
"I think people recognized at that moment, 'Gosh, all this resulted in somebody being elected and changing the environment for the entire Obama agenda,' " he said. "We did it without pejoratives, we did it without name-calling, we did it without all the absurdity that one would suggest is the traditional anger of the moment. We grew up."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.