I had a decision to make. I'd been in Tampa for all of 15 minutes, and I was already late for something, anything, everything—a white rabbit with OCD, searching for Mad Hatters.
Of course, I knew that the real Republican National Convention would occur far from the klieg lights and sound bites of primetime. At that very moment, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing an exclusive gig downtown, Log Cabin Republicans were gathering at a bar called the Rusty Pelican and throngs of delegates, dignitaries and media were gaping at bright, shiny things dangled by the Tampa Bay Welcoming Committee at Tropicana Field.
Instead, I opted to drive my Democrat-blue rental car with Rhode Island plates to the gritty outskirts of eastern Tampa for a Tea Party gathering dubbed "Unity Rally 2012." As Hurricane Isaac veered left, I was about to turn hard right.
That's because my focus in Tampa was of a broader scope: to see if there is any room for moderation left or if we are, in fact, in the middle of an ideological civil war. Beg your pardon. An "Ideological War of Northern Aggression." This is the South, after all.
Whether you view the Tea Party as a beacon of light or the heart of darkness, there's no denying that the passionate consortium of pissed-off conservatives represents both the fervent desire for a better future and the philosophical abyss that divides the country's partisans. Virtually every Republican I spoke to during the RNC believes that the Tea Party is unfairly maligned and its key issues (fiscal conservatism, small government, taxes) frequently misrepresented. Liberals see the Tea Party as the end result of conservatives going off their meds en masse. Republicans see a grassroots return to conservative principles.
There was supporting evidence for both arguments at the Unity Rally. Dustin Stockton, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net, told several hundred attendees—some waving "Don't Tread on Me" flags, others dressed in colonial garb—that "what we're proposing isn't radical; it isn't extreme." He then implied that the U.S. Postal Service should be abolished.
Stockton was preceded by conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz calling Democrats "the looters, the moochers, the parasites" and Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips pulling a Chuck Heston in offering his freedom and liberty to Obama and company "when you pry it from my COLD! DEAD! HANDS!"