Isaac Brekken/AP
People gather before a rally in the desert outside Searchlight, Nev. Saturday. Sarah Palin and thousands of conservative 'tea party' activists plan to descend on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hometown to call for the ouster of Democrats who supported the healthcare overhaul.

Tea-partiers bring their protest to Harry Reid's hometown

Barring bad behavior, the tea party protest in Searchlight, Nevada, could mark the beginning of the movement’s next mission: Taking down lawmakers who voted for healthcare reform.

Organizers of the much-anticipated "Showdown in Searchlight" – a sort of "tea-party" flavored Woodstock in Senate majority leader Harry Reid's hometown –are increasing their crowd estimates today, saying up to 30,000 protesters could spill onto a remote desert lot to rally against an era of big government.

"Traffic has begun to back up onto U.S. 95," reported the Las Vegas Sun's J. Patrick Coolican Saturday morning. "The site has taken on the look of an RV city with a festival atmosphere, though it's windy and cold."

Even if the highest attendance estimates aren't reached, the surge of participation is an indication that conservatives are far from chastened by their defeat in last weekend's healthcare reform vote in Congress.

Barring any ugly incidents that could add to liberal criticism of tea party Americans as extremists, the protest is likely to become the first leg in a concerted campaign to make Democrats pay with their political careers for agreeing to push healthcare reform along strictly partisan lines.

"Everyone is waiting to see if the tea party movement is reinvigorated or if we've resigned ourselves to defeat," Joe Wierzbicki, a spokesman for event sponsor Tea Party Express, told the Associated Press in an e-mail.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is expected to speak at noon, the highest profile speaker for an event that serves as the kickoff for a 44-city Tea Party Express tour that will end in Washington, D.C., on Tax Day, April 15.

The "Showdown in Searchlight" could serve as a major crossroads for the tea party movement. The size and tenor of the event will send messages to both Democrats and Republicans about the state of the Boston Tea Party-styled grass-roots movement that erupted after the passage of corporate bailout and stimulus packages early last year.

To be sure, the tea party has had its ups and downs in the past year, seeing both victories and defeats, and dancing sometimes uncomfortably with the GOP, which has to balance tapping into the tea party passion while risking being associated with fringe elements at a time when some experts say engaging moderate Republicans may offer the actual route for conservative salvation.

"This weekend will be critical for the tea party and conservatives," David Yepsen of Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, told NPR. "If the television images that come out of this gathering are of a bunch of nuts, the American people are going to say that these people aren't fit to lead the government. Republicans have to be mindful of what they're walking into."

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