Palin Rallies the Tea Party Ahead of Tax Day Protests

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Charles Krupa / AP

Sarah Palin gives a speech for the Tea Party Express at Boston Common in Boston, Ma.

On the eve of its tax day protests in Washington, D.C., the Tea Party Express rolled into Boston on Wednesday for the penultimate stop on its 20-day, 47-city bus tour. Before flooding the nation's capital, thousands of supporters of the burgeoning anti-government movement journeyed to this liberal redoubt — which they invoked as its ancestral home — for a raucous rally on the Boston Common.

Over the past year, Tea Party groups have perfected their freedom-soaked brand of political pageantry, and on this sunny morning its familiar emblems were ubiquitous: the placards castigating President Obama and his congressional allies, the sea of yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags, the speeches lauding constitutional principles, the barbs at big government and health-care reform. Like the rally that kicked off the tour in Harry Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nev., this one was boosted by a marquee headliner. When she strode onto the stage just before 11 a.m., Sarah Palin served up her signature blend of acerbic jabs and winning folksiness. Wearing a red leather jacket and a wry smile, she spoke for 20 minutes on a makeshift stage in front of a bus emblazoned with the Tea Party Express insignia, mostly skating over matters of policy in favor of Tea Party boilerplate and canned applause lines. "We'll keep clinging to our Constitution and our guns and our religion," she said. "You can keep the change."

Like her audience, Palin stressed lower taxes and limited government. "The government that governs least governs best," she said, echoing Thomas Jefferson. Palin also broke out the "Drill, baby, drill" refrain she introduced during the 2008 presidential campaign, and christened health-care reform "the mother of all unfunded mandates." "I'm not calling anyone un-American," she said, "but the unintended consequences of [the Obama Administration's policies] are un-American." That Obama is guiding the U.S. down a dark path is apparently one of the Tea Party's animating principles — a New York Times/CBS News poll released Wednesday found that while most Tea Party backers described the amount they pay in taxes as "fair," 92% of those surveyed believe Obama is propelling the U.S toward socialism.

The speech comes at a moment when Palin is, as usual, embroiled in controversy. In the past week, the former Alaska governor — who has earned some $12 million since stepping down as governor last July, according to an April 13 ABC News report — has sparred with President Obama over arms control, taken third in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll for President, and been mocked by liberal pundits after a purported copy of her perk-laden contract with a California school where she is slated to speak in June was said to be found in a trash can.

Palin's presence heightened the carnival atmosphere among the buoyant crowd of several thousand. Helicopters hovered overhead near the golden dome of the Massachusetts statehouse, and a small plane dangled a campaign sign as it buzzed over the Common. Merchants did a brisk trade in flags, buttons and T-shirts bearing slogans ranging from "Impeach Everybody" to "You Lie!" to "Stop Global Whining." Speakers and attendees alike invoked the 1773 Boston Tea Party and played up the movement's supposed revolutionary roots, with one crowd member bellowing, "The liberals are coming!" to peals of laughter. "It's just a great, patriotic event," says Shane Duval, the owner of a small environmental clean-up business in Chelmsford, Mass, who stood alone on the grass with a Gadsden flag.

"This is huge for us," says Christen Varley, founder of the Greater Boston Tea Party, which worked with the Tea Party Express to put on the event. Varley says her group's website drew some 4,000 hits on Monday as travelers sought information about the rally — a stratospheric leap from its daily average of about 100. That publicity also lured an array of party crashers, including advocacy groups who denounced the group's alleged bigotry. Others tweaked the Tea Party's penchant for abundant signage by brandishing their own tongue-in-cheek ones, scrawled with saying like "Oy, My Bunion" and "I Just Really Like Signs."

Tea Party groups have bristled at their portrayal as havens for racism or violence, and members basking in the sun on the Common repeatedly stressed the peaceful, positive nature of the movement. Despite the scorn they heaped on perceived foes — one crowd member called liberalism a "disease" — the audience members that spoke with TIME were polite and passionate, often exhibiting a cheerfulness at odds with their vision of the country's health. "The Constitution is being usurped, and the America I have grown up in may not even exist much longer," says Claire Donegan, a sign-toting protester.

Her friend Dianne Brown, a registered Democrat who says she has grown frustrated with the party because of its stance on social issues like abortion and gay rights, adds, "It's frightening — [Obama] said he'd come in and do one thing, and instead he's doing another." Others sounded deeper notes of alarm. "This is not the country I want to leave to my grandchildren," says Pat McHugh, 63, a retired small-business owner from Billerica, Mass. "We've got a civil war going on," he adds. "It's non-violent right now. But it just takes one spark."