NAPA, California (Reuters) - With the Republican campaign for the White House taking shape, hundreds of Tea Party activists kicked off a national bus tour on Saturday, aiming to rally their base and new recruits to the conservative political cause.
As supporters waved American flags and carried signs that read, “I’ll keep my money, guns and freedom, you keep the change,” organizers said the “Reclaiming America” bus tour was about restoring good governance.
“We want Washington to live within its means, just like we do,” said Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, a group organizing the tour. “We’re in an economic downfall. Meanwhile, politicians are busy attending cocktail parties instead of focusing on the issues.”
The rally, dotted with women wearing “I Am Sarah Palin” buttons in salute of the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, marked the start of the fifth Tea Party Express bus caravan across the country.
Organizers plan stops in 29 cities, with extra time slated for early primary and caucus states like Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, winding up on September 12 in Tampa, Florida, for a presidential debate sponsored by Tea Party activists.
The group has invited presidential hopefuls to join rallies along the way to address supporters.
There was no official crowd estimate, but the two-hour rally drew several hundred activists to Napa Valley Expo, a fairground in northern California’s wine country.
Actor-singer Pat Boone and a number of local radio talk show hosts turned out. But the best known political luminary to attend the event was Sharron Angle, the Republican Nevada state legislator who lost a bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Senate leader Harry Reid in last year’s mid-term election.
On Saturday, Angle was busy posing for pictures with fans and signing copies of her new book, “Right Angle: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim the Constitution,” released in June.
Initially dismissed by some pundits as a fringe movement, the Tea Party philosophy of reduced government and lower spending was widely seen as fueling sweeping Republican gains in the 2010 elections.
The movement’s popularity appears to have waned since then, with a New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month showing 40 percent of Americans disapprove of the Tea Party, up from an 18 percent disapproval rating in April 2010.
Nevertheless, leading candidates for the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination have gone out of their way to court Tea Party support.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who vaulted to the head of the Republican pack in three opinion polls soon after his recent entry in the race, quickly embraced the Tea Party and pledged his attendance at the September 12 debate.
Many at Saturday’s rally said they backed the tough-talking Texan, citing his three terms as governor and what they see as his strong record on jobs.
“He has what it takes to create jobs and bring this country to where we need to be,” said Judy Gullicksen, 67, a retiree from central California’s San Joaquin County.
Perry’s critics say many of the jobs he takes credit for have resulted from an oil industry boom, public-sector hiring and low-wage employment.
Still, his rising star has eclipsed that of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the early Republican front-runner now trailing Perry by double digits in polls.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who won the recent Republican Iowa straw poll, drew mixed reviews among some at Saturday’s rally.
A number of attendees questioned her viability as a candidate and pointed to her pledge to lower gasoline prices to below $2 a gallon if elected as a sign that she is less than well-versed in economics.
“She doesn’t really know how to compromise,” said Donna Gillies, 61, a retired teacher from the Bay Area who said she was considering registering as a Libertarian.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor