Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

“If I had to cut up my credit cards when I was in debt, why can’t they,” said Chris Felder of Folly Beach at the tea party rally on the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point Thursday night.

MOUNT PLEASANT -- Barbara Bates has a hard time calculating just how many hours a week she spends volunteering with local tea party and 9-12 groups.

The Goose Creek homemaker said she always voted but didn't become politically active until two years ago. In that time, she and others like her have regularly tracked what their local, state and federal officials have been up to.

"People got tired of yelling at their TV and realized they had to get off that sofa and have their voices heard," she said. "We have to let our elected officials know how we feel."

She was one of several hundred people who arrived at Patriots Point Thursday evening, despite an intense thunderstorm, for the Charleston Tea Party's big rally.

Unlike the group's 2009 debut -- an anti-tax rally that drew thousands to the U.S. Customhouse in Charleston -- this year's event served up more diverse themes, ranging from praising members of the armed services to clarifying the nation's foreign policy to the failure of tax reform in Columbia.

Mike Schwartz, a retired chemical engineer who serves on the Charleston Tea Party board, said the movement has morphed into a group concerned not only about taxes but also about spending, debt, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, state sovereignty and national sovereignty.

"We decided to change the venue (for this year's rally) to demonstrate the issues in the country are a lot bigger than taxes," he said.

Maj. Gen. James Livingston, a Lowcountry resident and Medal of Honor recipient, helped open the rally with a rousing recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and he urged the crowd to stand up for what it believes.

"Our veterans did not go to war for our leader to bow to foreign pressures and foreign dictators," he said. "Veterans did not go to war for our leadership to apologize for America."

Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Speaker of the House and possible Republican presidential candidate, continued with a critique of President Barack Obama's handling of global events. "I'm going to talk briefly about foreign policy. I think we need one," Gingrich said, drawing laughs.

Gingrich said lowering America's debt and federal deficit were vital to its national security, as is tapping into the nation's energy reserves, such as shale gas, coal and oil deposits.

While Gingrich won enthusiastic applause, it's less clear how many votes he won.

Bates made a point to say a personal hello to Gingrich as he maneuvered toward the podium, but later said she hasn't decided who she will support for president.

For Sparky Witte, a 61-year-old construction company owner, Gingrich could suffer from negatives relating to his messy divorce. "I'd rather find someone where everything was up and up," Witte said, adding that U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, "would be one of the people I'd like to see."

Marti Ham of James Island also said she is on the fence. "I'm still looking for a reliable Republican candidate to go against Obama, but I don't see one."

Across the state, the tea party remains a political force, but their clout is limited, said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard, who co-authored a book with tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint.

Woodard noted that tea party supporters ran their own candidates for positions inside the Pickens County GOP, but came up short.

"Maybe they just overestimated their power. In reality, there were a lot of people involved who already were trying to change things," Woodard said. "I think they're going to have a harder time dictating the outcome than they thought at first."

Pete Peterson of James Island said he got involved in the tea party two years ago and remains involved because he feels the future of the country is at stake.

"This is a long, long road," he said. "This isn't something that's going to get fixed in a couple of years."

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