Tea Parties show some at a boil

Spectators let their signs speak for them during the Charleston Tea Party.

Months of a contracting economy, rising unemployment and growing federal spending appear to have energized conservatives in a way no Republican presidential candidate could.

Those who helped turn out and turn on the crowds that flocked to Tea Party protests in Charleston and across the country now will have to find a way to take the next step.

In other words, will the "fed up" sentiments of these people translate into meaningful political change?

"If I had to say it in a sentence, I would say Republicans are seizing on Tax Day to send the message that the loyal opposition isn't rolling over and playing dead," University of South Carolina political science professor Blease Graham said. "They got shut out in the congressional vote, but they didn't get shut out in the shouting match."

Amanda Moore, who served as U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's campaign coordinator in South Carolina, was among the crowd of about 2,500 people who gathered on the U.S. Customhouse steps Thursday.

She said the protest was less directed at President Barack Obama than at the status quo — one shaped in part by former President George W. Bush's eight years in office.

"President Bush was not our ideal president, even as conservatives, we were not happy with his administration and certainly our economic stability was at free-fall while he was there," she said. "This is not a Democrat versus Republican thing or vice versa. It's 'this is where we're at folks.' We need to get together and look at the policies that have failed. Capitalism hasn't failed. With all the regulations we've had in place, we haven't had capitalism for quite some time."

But Ronald Middleton of James Island said the protests amount to partisan posturing by those frustrated that their candidate lost last year.

"With as much as this man (Obama) is trying to do and has put on the plate, I have not talked to a person yet that has voted for him and has started to criticize him or anything else," he said. "All the people I've talked to, we are still overjoyed."

Despite Obama's campaign pledge to try to unite the country, Graham said, his ability to do that has eroded by the end of his honeymoon period — something all new presidents eventually face — and by lingering economic woes.

"What happened in November and December is ancient history, and people are rewriting political affiliations now," Graham said. "This tax and spend issue could be the one issue that refocuses Republican unity. It certainly gives them a common opponent. It was surprising to me how widespread this Tea Party thing was. ... This thing has spread to people who are ordinarily comfortable with their jobs. The white collar service economy is really getting hit here. It isn't like losing factory jobs to a foreign country that's been the case before."

Part of the conservatives' frustration is that, for the first time since 1993, they don't have a congressional majority or president to represent their side of the debate.

"Now it's like they're bulldozing over us," Moore said. "It's frightening because we don't need America to become a socialist country."

But Obama backers such as the Rev. Sandra Kearse, one of the ministers at Canaan Missionary Baptist Church, are not as frustrated.

Kearse organized a grass roots meeting Saturday to try to find solutions to the nation's problems, such as North Korea's nuclear plans and government waste.

"Ever since 2000, ever since we've gotten into this new millennium, it has been quite a journey — bumpy and crazy and — I don't want to say it because I love President Bush because he sent me a lot of presents and letters — but everything was mismanaged," she said. "Sometimes, we need to let time, which is on our side, take its course. Give this man an opportunity to straighten out the barrage of messes."

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, dropped by the Tea Party early and thought is was an excellent way for conservatives to get their message out.

"And the message from conservatives is we're all sick and tired of spending money in Washington that we don't have and there's going to be a huge bill attached to all of this," he said. "The repo man is going to come in the form of Chinese bankers. We're putting ourselves in a huge debt situation. ... At some point, the Democrats have to let go of George Bush and say, 'OK, this economy is the Obama economy.' "

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Graham said Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign slogan still fits the challenge facing Obama: "It's the economy, stupid."

"Whatever future we can lay out here, in six months or a year, if the economy really improves, then the Obama administration will get sterling marks," he said, "but if there continues to be a malaise or increasing hardship, then he is going to get increasing criticism."