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Can Republicans Forge a Grand Old Tea Party?

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NEW ORLEANS - Even at a conference for the Republican establishment attended by potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates, everybody, it seems, wants to be a Tea Partier.

At least that was the case in New Orleans, where the big-name speakers at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference were none too eager to embrace the "R" word: They were conservatives first, they insisted, beholden to no party, interested not in the Grand Old Party's past but its Tea Party-infused future.

It wasn't just the speakers: When one attendee announced he is "not a Republican, I am a Tea Party member," most of the 3,500 conference attendees broke into applause. They clapped even louder when a woman said she will donate directly to candidates, not the Republican National Committee, because the RNC doesn't always choose wisely.

Her example was Arlen Specter, who the RNC had backed over Pat Toomey back in 2004, when Specter was still a Republican.

The woman pressed former senator Rick Santorum, an unblinking social conservative, about why he had gone along with the Specter endorsement; Santorum indicated he wanted to protect the conservative majority at a time when two openings were coming up on the Supreme Court.

While his judgment could be questioned, Santorum told the woman, "please don't question my intention to do what is right for those little babies."

Over and over, Republican speakers said their party had gone astray when it held in power; it was time, they argued, to get the party back on track with a focus on fiscal restraint and a break with the party's recent past. (Not everyone was on message: Former Congressman J.C. Watts suggested "history is going to be kind to George W. Bush," perhaps the only time Mr. Bush was mentioned.)

But not everyone had a vision for how, exactly, to resolve the lingering tension between those like the woman above, who have little patience for the RNC's pragmatic calculations, and those who want to keep a fragile Tea Party/Republican coalition from fracturing.

Perhaps the best argument on that front came from Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor and former RNC chairman. In what may have been the best speech of the conference, he told attendees to stick together and resist their hard-line instincts. A tea party candidate won't necessarily win in Vermont, he said, and the right is still better off if it can field a competitive candidate there. Just because someone disagrees a bit, Barbour stressed, isn't reason to turn your back on them.

But it wasn't just a "big tent" speech. Barbour said that if a Tea Party candidate beats an establishment candidate in a primary, they "become our candidate" -- and at that point the establishment should do everything it can to get a victory. The overriding message was fight it out but don't be overly dogmatic, and, no matter what, come together when it counts. (Above, check out a video wrap-up of the conference on CBSNews.com's "Washington Unplugged.")

As for the conference attendees, they were largely white, and middle-aged or older; they clapped loudly for vows of fiscal discipline and promises to "repeal and replace" the Democrats' health care reform bill. Many of the women wore red, sometimes augmented by wide-brimmed hats and the "patriotic jewelry" (think bald eagle brooch covered in fake diamonds) being sold by vendors.

They weren't just there for the politicians: Conservative journalists Sean Hannity and Andrew Breitbart were at the conference, and both could plausibly say they were as popular as most of the lawmakers who took the stage.

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The line at Hannity's book signing snaked through a large conference room and deep into the hallway; organizers said Hannity, who wore a white t-shirt and bomber jacket that said "Air Force" on one side and "Sean Hannity" on the other, had brought 3,000 books for the occasion, only 500 less than the announced number of attendees at the conference. (See left.)

Breitbart gave a well-received speech to attendees in which he harshly attacked the mainstream media for deceiving the American people; when I ran into him afterward, he was being followed around by a crew from ABC's "Nightline," and being asked, awkwardly, if he felt that show specifically was part of the problem. (He said yes, more or less.) When I asked why he is such a star with the very press corps he so aggressively criticizes, Breitbart responded, "because I'm telling the truth."

"I basically think there's a huge portion of this country who for years are very frustrated with how the press behaves toward a certain segment of the population, and mocks and maligns them, lies about them, carries the water for one political party, for one ideology over the other," he said. "Those people who are reporting the other side of the story -- it's boom times for us."

Another group looking to steer the GOP's direction were the Ron Paul acolytes, who stood out for their youth and exuberance and hawked Paul's book "End the Fed" to attendees. They cheered loudly and lustily when there man came on to speak, as though they were at a college basketball game.

When Indiana Rep. Mike Pence said during his speech that American should be standing with Israel, prompting a cheer from much of the crowd, Paul's backers booed in protest of what they see as an interventionist foreign policy. The rest of the crowd quickly shouted them down, eventually erupting in a chant of "USA! USA!" that Paul backers would label ironic.

Before Paul spoke, I stopped by the hotel bar for some coffee, where I struck up a conversation with two Paul supporters who were waiting for their man to take the stage. I asked them what they thought of Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who had just spoken to a largely empty conference hall.

The Paul supporters said they hadn't heard of Johnson. I didn't know much about him myself, and said, "I think he wants to legalize marijuana." (That is indeed the case.) Suddenly, a woman standing nearby screamed in my direction, "stop spreading lies! He wants to leave it to the states!"

I tried to respond but she cut me off. "Are you a Ron Paul person?" she asked, eyes wide, finger pointed at my face. I said I was a member of the media. She seemed to think that was even worse. "Stop spreading lies!" she repeated again, jabbing her finger in my face.

More scenes from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference:

In the side rooms, organizers had set up a number of breakout sessions, including one on fundraising; a speaker said that donations result from peoples' "ego," "habit" and desire to cover their bases. Down the hall, representatives from the National Organization for Marriage, the Heritage Foundation, FairTax and Paul's Campaign For Liberty handed out literature.

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Off to the side stood a Louisiana-born teenage boy dressed in an American flag polo shirt, along with glasses and a bowl cut. He showed me the various pro-Republican buttons he was selling; he had designed them, he said proudly, along with his mother and brother. I asked him if he was in it for the money or if he was here because he believed in conservative causes.

"It's mostly because I believe in it, but I also want to make some money too," the boy said. He told me he is a Palin fan, noting that her button had been his best seller. I asked him if he would ever go to a Democratic conference and sell buttons there. He smiled and looked up at the ceiling. "No way," he said.

On the sidewalk outside the conference, a small group of college students, who had taken time out from a community college debate tournament, stood protesting the event. They held signs saying things like "health care is a right" and got into a steady stream of arguments with the attendees passing by.

The atmosphere was not unlike a particularly tense family dinner: The students made liberal-idealist arguments as attendees told them they'd change their tune once they grew up and started paying taxes.

The students were largely polite and articulate, though one wore a red Che Guevara t-shirt; when I said that didn't seem like the best attire in which to start a reasonable discussion, I was told it was merely in honor of Guevara's "early work."

One attendee, a 50-something woman dressed in red, talked to the protesters with a bemused look on her face, as if she were dealing with a particularly troublesome teenager. After listening to them make their case, she told the students that if they really want to make the world a better place, they should just smile at people and tell them that God loves them.

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All Hotsheet Coverage of the SRLC