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Organized armies converge on healthcare town halls

Reform advocates are adapting to conservatives' tactics and aim to flood audiences to give Democrats cover from attacks.

By Staff writer / August 13, 2009

Long lines of people wait to enter Kepler Theater for a health care forum hosted by Sen. Ben Cardin at Hagerstown Community College in Hagerstown, Md., on Wednesday.

Ric Dugan/ The Herald-Mail/ AP

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Hagerstown, Md.

Two organized armies on the left and right are in a battle over healthcare reform that is turning on which side is seen as authentic – grass roots, not AstroTurf.

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Both sides are scrambling to turn to their advantage the intensity of the turnout at public meetings with members of Congress during the past two weeks.

Screamers and booers swamped Sen. Ben Cardin’s town hall meeting in Hagerstown, Md., Wednesday. Most failed to get in the front door of the 450-seat theater, but those who did nearly drowned out what the first-term Democrat had to say for about an hour.

Judging by pins and signs, conservative protesters alerted by conservative talk radio and e-mails appeared to outnumber Obama supporters at least 5 to 1.

Yet in Kittanning, Pa., Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter got a more balanced reception. After a battering at a town hall on Tuesday, “20 of the first 30 questions,” Senator Specter faced Wednesday were from healthcare sympathizers, says Marc Stier, Pennsylvania state director of Health Care for America Now.

“We got there really early,” adds Mr. Stier, whose national coalition group is now the leading pro-reform organizer. On Tuesday, Stier acknowledges, most of his activists arrived too late to get a seat.

Before the town halls began, moderate Democrats from relatively conservative districts and states were loath to get too close to groups like Health Care for America Now (HCAN), fearing that opponents could tar them as liberals.

That is changing, Stier says: “Blue dogs [conservative Democrats] who were keeping HCAN at a distance, are now asking us to help get people to their events. They’re scared, and they want our help.”

There are some new names in the mix of activists organizing around healthcare reform – such as the Tea Party Patriots, Conservatives for Patients' Rights, and Patients First.

But the fault lines are not new. These conservative forces have faced off with liberal and trade union groups before on issues ranging from taxes to tort reform. Much of the debate centers around the size and cost of government, as well as the scope of its reach into business.