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'Tea party' movement: Who are they and what do they want?

Tea Party Nation convention starts Thursday. Questions and answers about the tea party movement and how it might affect the 2010 elections.

By / Staff writer / February 4, 2010

Tax Day Tea Party: Tamara Schirrmacher dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, with chains representing the national debt, at a rally in Pleasanton, Calif., last April.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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Of all the protest signs at all the rallies and town-hall meetings where people gathered last year to object to Washington's plans to save the US economy and reform healthcare, this hand-lettered one is memorable: "You can't fix stupid, but you can vote it out."

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That's the "tea party" movement in a nutshell.

The left paints the movement as a largely white and middle-class mob – and as including kooks who equate President Obama with Joseph Stalin.

There's some truth to that view. But where some see a bunch of white people standing in the way of progress, others see a growing expression of dissatisfaction with what former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) calls the "neomonarchists."

Ahead of the Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville, Tenn., slated for Feb. 4-6, here's a look at the tea party movement – its birth, its leadership, and its aspirations.

When – and why – was the tea party movement born?

CNBC editor Rick Santelli's on-air "rant" last February about a proposed mortgage bailout is widely considered to be the "big bang" moment for the birth of the movement.

A few days later, a couple of conservative foot soldiers – John O'Hara of the Heartland Institute and J.P. Freire, then of The American Spectator – wondered if there were a way to harness Mr. Santelli's frustration.

"You know what would be funny?" Mr. Freire mused to Mr. O'Hara, leading into a discussion that would become so much more than talk.

The pair organized "A New American Tea Party" rally outside the White House on Feb. 27, according to O'Hara's book about the movement. Six weeks later (around tax day), about 500,000 people took to the streets in small, medium, and large protests from San Francisco to Atlanta. Today, says O'Hara in a phone interview, "there are absolutely hundreds" of local and state tea party organizations.

Is the tea party a real populist movement or a front for big business?

No single person leads the tea party movement. Sympathizers and role players include conservative politicians Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, antitax crusader Grover Norquist, online organizer Eric Odom of the American Liberty Alliance, and media personalities such as talk radio's Mark Williams and Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

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