Tens of thousands of conservative activists converge on Capitol grounds

The conservative activists who took over the west lawn of the Capitol on Saturday made it clear their anger extends far past President Barack Obama's healthcare plan, and even back into the previous administration.

Protesters and speakers used the rally to voice their anger at Obama's stimulus package, the House-passed "cap-and-trade" energy bill, and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

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But it went well beyond that to include anger about federal funds going to the liberal group Acorn, the number of "czars" appointed in the Obama administration and accusations that the White House solicited critics' e-mails to compile an "enemies list." Others pushed for tort reform and making English the official language and questioned whether Obama was born in the United States.

And they really, really like Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who has been thrust into the spotlights of the left and the right after bursting out "You lie!" at Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

"It started last year when the Republicans were bailing out Wall Street and started again this year when the Democrats rammed the stimulus down our throats," said Brendan Steinhauser, an organizer for FreedomWorks, which sponsored the rally.

The idea of increased federal involvement in healthcare, many said, simply brought their anger to a boil.

"It's the power being amassed with all these programs," said Carl Hilschur of Luray, Va., who toted a "Joe Wilson for President" sign. "Things are getting to the point where you have to do something. It might not make a difference, but you have to try."

Reliable crowd estimates for the event were not available, and are a likely source of debate between liberal and conservative groups, but the crowd was in the tens of thousands. The crowd filled the west lawn of the Capitol and spread from there. Organizers said 450 buses carried protesters to the march. About 30,000 registered for the march online.

The march and rally were extension of the Tea Party Patriot movement that turned town halls raucous in August. The official name of the event was the "Taxpayer March on Washington," but it was also commonly called the 9-12 march. Several speakers also indicated they plan to hold a similar march next year. If such a march was held at the same time, it would come as the 2010 election season heats up.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said from the stage he believed the crowd was bigger than the the one assembled for Obama's inauguration in January.

"It's amazing they got so many people here with so little organization," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said in an interview. DeMint also was a speaker at the rally.

The list of speakers included only a sprinkling of politicians. The highest ranking was Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Republican Conference. The other politicians on the roster of speakers were Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), State Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia and Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now the leader of FreedomWorks, also spoke.

Many of the other speakers represented conservative groups like the National Taxpayers Union and Grassfire.org.

But it was a politician who wasn't there – Wilson – who got the most praise. Wilson's outburst made him a hero to many of the protesters and speakers. "Joe Wilson for President" was a common slogan on signs. Another said "Congress, you're fired. (Except Joe Wilson)."

"He said what 250 million Americans are saying," said Mike Galvin of Troy, N.Y., who carried a Palin-Wilson 2012 sign. "They're the only two politicians in the country with the stones to say what needs to be said."

Galvin said he paid $200 of the $250 he had in the bank to make it to the protest. He rode a bus all night, leaving behind his sick wife, and planned to be back home by midnight. Though he's a disabled veteran, he said he gets health insurance through his accounting job.

“I am here to protest the expansion of government spending,” said Stuwart Ingman of Kansas. Ingman spoke proudly of how he spent his own money so that he could be in Washington and scoffed at the idea that the people sitting on the Mall represent a fringe element of American politics.

“These are some of the most caring people you will ever meet,” Ingman said. “These are the kind of people that I would see in my hometown. We are certainly not a bunch of loons.”

Though most of the fire was directed at Obama and the Democratic Congress, Republicans took some shots as well. Rob DeVoll of Charleston carried a sign telling Republicans to get a "spine." Though he disagrees with Democrats, he said, "I'm not a Democrat."

"I'm tired of the takeover," DeVoll said. "When Bush was in power he did the same thing."

Counter-protests were limited. But a small group of young people mocked the protesters, walking around in tuxes and evening gowns, chanting "Bring Back Bush," and holding signs that read "Fight socialism: End Medicare."

Though protesters had a wide variety of complaints, Obama's healthcare plan did come in for a mighty drubbing. One common printed sign read "Bury Obamacare with Kennedy."

"We will not tolerate a government takeover of our healthcare," Price said from the stage.

Michael M. Gleeson contributed to this report

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