The Times dispatched its political personality profiler and snarkster-in-chief Mark Leibovich to Florida to report on the hot race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.
Moderate Gov. Charlie Crist looks set to battle insurgent conservative Marco Rubio in the Republican primary in late August. Leibovich's piece, "The First Senator From the Tea Party?" which will appear next Sunday in the Times Magazine, described his attendance at a Tea Party rally in Orlando, from which he dutifully filed anecdotes about racist attacks, bullying, and birther-paranoia on the part of conservatives.
First, Leibovich sat down with the "embattled Republican" Crist, the "pragmatist" battling "ideological purists" in his own party:
To many Republicans, the governor's biggest sin was his support for the Obama administration's $787 billion economic-stimulus package. That's what comes up the most, although a fair number of conservatives also blame Crist for his seemingly decisive endorsement of John McCain three days before the Florida primary in the 2008 presidential campaign, effectively handing the state to an eventual nominee for whom many conservatives had little use. They see Crist's career as pockmarked with instances of consensus-seeking, deal-making and bipartisanship - three particularly vulgar notions to a simmering Tea Party movement on the right. Conservatives have tagged Crist as being part of that pariah breed of Republican today: a "moderate." Or worse.
It is not uncommon for a party out of power to undergo an identity crisis and an internal bloodletting, and it is Crist's bad luck that his race in 2010 fits the frame of a philosophical debate that has been fulminating in the Republican Party for several months. The race, and the national debate, pits the governing pragmatists against the ideological purists. The purists say that a Republican revival depends on hewing to conservative ideas, resisting compromise and generally taking a dim view of government. Tea Party rallies are filled with such purists, whose populist icons - Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News's Glenn Beck - tend to be unburdened by the pressures of governing through a recession.
Leibovich had some close encounters with the locals:
As I wrote this in my notebook, I was startled by a short guy with a stiff toupee who walked up behind me and accused me of taking down license-plate numbers - spying. I assured him that I was not and explained that I was a reporter (which only raised his suspicion) from The New York Times (and his contempt). I was here to watch Rubio speak, I said, and Toupee Guy grunted something about how it sure looked like I was taking down license-plate numbers, but whatever.
Maybe he's read some of Leibovich's slanted profiles. Leibovich has a history of bashing Republicans and flattering Democrats.
Leibovich made sure he picked some anecdotes of rude behavior on the part of participants at the Orlando tea party, which he uncharitably characterized as "a diverse mishmash of conservative causes and resentments." (A tone the Times never took with liberal anti-war protests or pro-amnesty rallies.)
Between 3,000 and 4,000 people filled the park, spilling onto adjacent sidewalks. From an amphitheater stage, speakers called Obama a socialist (roughly once every minute), said "we want our country back" and maintained that Democrats resent hard work - which is why they all live on "government handouts." They evoked a mood somewhere between exuberance and anger, the latter of which was best displayed when confronted by dissent.
I watched a group of protesters surround and heckle Hannah Jones, an 18-year-old community-college student from Orlando, who was standing in the middle of the crowd holding an "I hate tea" sign. "I would compare it to fifth-grade bullying," Jones told me in a phone conversation afterward. She said that an event organizer, accompanied by two security guards, told her that if she did not leave he would call the police. "I just left," Jones said. "I had every right to be there, but I didn't want any trouble."
Nearby I met Dustin Branch, a 21-year-old African-American wearing an Obama T-shirt. He said someone had just walked up to him and threatened to find out where he lives and teach him a lesson. "I've had people call me the N-word, people saying I'm un-American, that I'm disrespecting veterans and that I'm a racist," said Branch, of Auburndale, Fla.
But for the most part, the gathering was peaceful and festive, comprising a diverse mishmash of conservative causes and resentments. The so-called Birthers were represented ("Show us the birth certificate, Mr. President"). I also saw a pro-flat-tax demonstrator, a woman holding a sign equating vaccines with poison, a woman angry about fees at the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, another furious about Washington's "War on Christianity," someone handing out "Cheney 2012" leaflets and a small group protesting the local Democratic congressman, Alan Grayson, by distributing MyCongressmanIsNuts.com bumper stickers.
Other than a contempt for the president - portrayed in signs as, among other things, a racist, a communist, a Nazi, a Muslim and someone who should "Go back to Kenya" - the most palpable resentment here for any individual was for Crist ("Obama's BFF," said one sign under a photo of "The Hug").