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Palin opens Tea Party protest in Reid's hometown

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Palin: Government works for us
  • NEW: Sarah Palin addresses crowd
  • Tea Party activists to hold rally Saturday in Harry Reid's Nevada hometown
  • Polls suggest Senate majority leader faces tough re-election battle
  • Former GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin to headline "Showdown in Searchlight" event

Searchlight, Nevada (CNN) -- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin kicked off a Tea Party rally Saturday in Sen. Harry Reid's hometown, encouraging disgruntled Americans to "take back our country" while attacking what she called the "Obama-Pelosi-Reid spending spree."

"There's no better place to kick off the Tea Party Express than Harry Reid's hometown," Palin said at the rally, dubbed "Showdown in Searchlight," aimed at conjuring up support for the Senate Majority Leader's defeat in November elections.

Activists -- some of whom are calling the gathering the largest retirement party in the world -- hope it will carry a strong symbolic message.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, is credited with helping push through Congress the controversial health care bill that President Barack Obama signed Tuesday, as well as the "fixes" measure that passed Thursday.

"Washington has broken faith with the people that they are to be serving," Palin told the crowd, which numbered in the thousands.

Palin said the message to government leaders was "loud and clear."

"The big government, the big debt, Obama-Pelosi-Reid spending spree is over. You're fired," she said, prompting cheers from the crowd.

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Palin's speech Saturday echoed many of her recent appearances at Tea Party events as she promoted "common sense conservative values" and decried "elites in Washington" and big government spending.

She addressed recent criticism of a post on her Facebook page that called for conservatives not to retreat in the wake of the health care vote, but "reload." Some critics have suggested the post encouraged violent acts against those who voted in favor of the legislation.

"Let's clear the air right now," she said. "We're not inciting violence. Don't get sucked into the lame-stream media lies about Americans standing up for freedom. it's a bunch of bunk that the media is trying to feed you. Don't let them try to divert" attention from the issue.

Other expected speakers included Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, who told CNN's Ed Henry the event was "a great way to kick off a very intense political season."

In a statement to CNN, Reid said he was "happy so many people came to see my hometown of Searchlight and spend their out-of-state money especially in these tough economic times. Ultimately, though, this election will be decided by Nevadans, not people from other states who parachute in for one day to have a tea party."

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Not far from the rally site, the State Democratic party and the Reid campaign have set up a hospitality tent.

"We are serving tea and donut holes in recognition that Sen. Reid just passed health care reform, and [that] we're closing the Medicare donut hole," said Zac Petkanas, deputy communications director for the Reid campaign.

It's staffed, he added, "with real Nevadans from Nevada and folks from Searchlight who support Reid."

The senator, meanwhile, is spending Saturday with the National Rifle Association's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. The Reid campaign describes LaPierre as "one of the senator's supporters." The two are attending the grand opening of the $60 million Clark County Shooting Park north of Las Vegas that, according to the Reid campaign, wouldn't have opened without the senator's help.

Reid is arguably the Tea Party's top target. He carries a lot of political baggage in a year that finds much anger directed at incumbents.

"He is one of the three faces of the Democratic agenda in Washington, which right now is unpopular," said Nevada political newsletter editor Jon Ralston.

Recent polls from the Mason-Dixon organization show 33 percent of those polled have a favorable view of Reid, while 52 percent said they have an unfavorable view of the senator -- some of the worst numbers he has faced in years.

"I don't think many voters in Nevada dislike me. I think we have an economic situation in Nevada that is very difficult," Reid told CNN in a recent interview in Las Vegas.

The state's economy is in dire straits. It leads the nation in foreclosures, and its 13 percent unemployment rate is second only behind Michigan's.

Those vying to challenge Reid on the Republican side are pouncing.

"He has lost touch with what is going on here in Nevada," said businesswoman and former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, who is leading the pack among the Republican hopefuls.

"It is all about jobs. His solution is to put the country more in debt -- to tax the country more -- to put our children and grandchildren at risk for years and years of being in debt," she added.

Earlier this month, Lowden told CNN she's a proud member of the Tea Party movement.

Another Republican challenger, businessman Danny Tarkanian, said Reid has "alienated himself from the people of Nevada, and the economy is getting worse and worse and worse."

Also not helping Reid were two recent quips by Obama about not wasting money in Las Vegas.

Reid, who is not facing a serious primary challenge, last year aired ads aimed at promoting what he has done to help improve the economy, as well as introducing himself to hundreds of thousands of new voters who have moved to Nevada since his last election.

"To say Harry Reid is going to run a scorched-earth campaign against whomever this nominee is ... he has a reputation for doing whatever it takes to win -- no more so than this year. And he is going to have all the money to do it," Ralston said.

For his part, Reid -- known as a tenacious fighter who has come out ahead in previous close elections -- will push the message against his opponents of how much he has done for the state.

But he said he will not campaign differently than he has in the past.

"People in the state of Nevada know me," Reid said. "I'm not going to be changing who I am for an election. I'm just who I was when I started this a long time ago, and I continue to be the same person I used to be, as I am today, and will work very hard to meet the additional requirements that come with a changing economy that we have."

The Tea Party Express is scheduled to end up in Washington on April 15 -- tax day. The group's travel plans are part of its "Just Vote Them Out! Tour." Some local organizers prefer to call the Searchlight gathering a "conservative Woodstock."

CNN's Ed Henry, Kevin Bohn and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.