The first-ever Tea Party convention kicks off today at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, and, when it closes with a banquet on Saturday night, Sarah Palin will take the stage as the event's only marquee speaker--and opinions vary on whether it's a good or bad move, politically, for her to be there.
The convention has been fraught with criticism from segments of the Tea Party movement--activists who protest the $549 ticket prices and the for-profit status of the group that's putting it on as a sign that it's not truly "grassroots"--and Palin's appearance has driven some of that criticism. She's rumored to be getting $100,000 for her keynote speech (her going rate, according to documents obtained by Politico), and the big bucks have turned off some Tea Party activists who don't want to be associated with the convention, which is being put on by the group Tea Party Nation.
Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) were scheduled to speak but dropped off the list (convention organizers say it was because of conflicting information from the House ethics committee), leaving Palin as the only conservative star in attendance.
Now, some of those activists who have criticized the convention say Palin could be making a mistake in appearing there: it may cost her some support among the conservative grassroots, they suggest, and opinions conflict on whether Palin's speech is a mistake or a boon to the movement.
"We're getting massive grassroots input that they're unhappy with what she's doing right now," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the group Tea Party Patriots, a national grassroots coordinating group with state and local chapters, which seeks to communicate with smaller independent groups across the nation. Martin's group claims to have 15 million members nationwide, and Martin says it rejected an invitation to be part of the convention.
One of those unhappy activists is Robin Stublen, 53, of Punta Gorda, Florida, who owns a grass maintenance and pest control business and runs the Punta Gorda Tea Party. Stublen says he had been active in local politics for years before the Tea Parties came about and was drawn to the movement by the now-infamous rant of CNBC's Rick Santelli and the protests across the country on Feb. 27 last year.
"She's got some problems, and I don't think she realizes the problems," Stublen said of Palin's involvement with the Nashville convention. "It's a shame, because I don't think she knows what she's gotten herself into."
"This has nothing to do with the grassroots movement--nothing," Stublen said of the convention, citing its ticket prices. Stublen said a lot of the people attending are probably "grassroots people that have saved up...thinking it was something other than it was." He says he likes Palin, though he hasn't made up his mind on her as a 2012 candidate. ("I like her...I just find her to be a very nice person," Stublen said.)
Stublen also criticized Palin's involvement with Tea Party Express--whose 2010 kickoff event Palin will attend on March 27 in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) hometown of Searchlight, Nevada--a nationwide Tea Party bus tour that has been criticized by some of the same Tea Partiers who don't like the convention. Stublen's allegation: that it's not truly grassroots, but rather a GOP-affiliated AstroTurf operation.
Other Tea Partiers aren't so sure that Palin's attendance is bad, or good.
"Do I think it's a bad move? Perhaps. Time will tell," Christie Carden, founder of the Hunstville Tea Party Movement in Huntsville, Alabama wrote via e-mail. "In my opinion, Sarah Palin's actions do not affect the Tea Party movement as a whole...Sarah Palin has many good things to say, and I'm sure her speech will motivate many."
"People feel like there are problems with [the convention], but at the same time...this is only gonna be one of however many meetings people have," said Keli Carender, 30, of Seattle, who is credited with hosting one of the first ever Tea Party protests in February of 2009, before the movement really got started. (See an NPR profile of Carender here.)
Carender says she doesn't feel strongly about the convention one way or another: "I don't want to indite the people down there...I'm not gonna jump on some bandwagon," Carender said.
"She probably will lose some [support], but people redeem themselves all the time," Carender said of Palin's attendance. "Who knows what she'll jump into next that everyone will love her again for."
Others strongly support the convention, and Palin's attendance.
"I'm all for it," said Bob Porto, a Tea Party organizer from Little Rock, Arkansas. "I think that there's different levels of the Tea Party, meaning that there's structure that people want to participate in such as the event going on in Nashville...I think the Tea Party is gaining respect when we're able to attract some of the quality representation...such a caliber of person such as this."
And Rebecca Wales of Smart Girl Politics, a membership website that seeks to get women involved in politics, defended Palin's attendance.
"I think if you read why Sarah is going to the convention," Wales said, alluding to Palin's USA Today op-ed on the topic, published on Wednesday, "is because she believes in the movement itself, she believes in grassroots politics and grassroots activism."
Smart Girl Politics has been listed on the convention website as an affiliate, and Wales says the group will send two members of its leadership team to the convention to interact with attendants.
"We actually left it open to our membership" whether to get involved in the convention, Wales said. "It was important to them for us to be there...our membership overwhelmingly thought that this was a good idea."
It remains to be seen, of course, what impact the convention speech will have on Palin's relationship with the conservative grassroots. There is division, right now, in the Tea Party movement over whether the convention is a credible enterprise--most of the criticism being leveled at the convention's "grassroots" bona fides.
At the same time, Palin will earn some valuable face time with the conservative activists and organizers in attendance when she speaks at the convention Saturday night
But whether it helps, hurts, or doesn't affect her in the long run, the answer is unclear among the kind of activists whose support she's seeking.