1 of 12
Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Senate candidate Mike Lee addresses the crowd at the state Capitol Tuesday during the Tea Party Express rally. Lee and two other Republicans hoping to unseat Sen. Bob Bennett spoke at the rally.

SALT LAKE CITY — A cross-country tour aiming to drum up support for the burgeoning tea party movement and knock incumbents out of political office in upcoming mid-term elections drew hundreds Tuesday at stops in Provo and Salt Lake City.

The junket, which includes a caravan of tour buses carrying musicians, radio personalities and conservative activists, launched last weekend in Searchlight, Nev., at an event that brought out thousands to a desert rally that featured an appearance by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The event culminates with an April 15 "Tax Day" rally in Washington, D.C.

The tea party movement began last year with gatherings of conservatives upset by federal government bailouts of troubled financial institutions. Supporters of the cause are calling for reductions in government spending, lower taxes and a return to the tenets of the Founding Fathers, especially in regards to individual and state sovereignty.

A Utah Highway Patrol trooper on Capitol security detail Tuesday estimated that about 700-800 had gathered near the building's south staircase. Addressing those attendees, Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express group that organized the tour, said the movement is a populist effort that does not require a figurehead.

"This battle is being fought in lots of venues and lots of different areas, and there's lots of moving parts to this," Williams said. "And don't ever let anybody tell you there's this monolithic tea party philosophy. If they do, just say, 'Listen, it's called the U.S. Constitution.'

"And if somebody says, 'Who's the tea party leader? … Look them right in the eye and say, 'I'm the tea party leader,' " he said.

The express organizers gave time to three of the 10 challengers looking to unseat Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a move in keeping with the tour's moniker: "Just Vote Them Out!"

Tim Bridgewater, Cherilyn Eagar and Mike Lee, all Republicans hoping to take Bennett out either at the state convention or in a primary runoff, tried to entice the tea partiers with three-minute stump speeches near the end of the 90-minute gathering.

Earlier in the day, a crowd of about 300, many waving American flags or holding hand-lettered anti-Obama signs, gathered at the historic Utah County Courthouse in downtown Provo.

"This is America. This is how it all started 250 years ago," said Jim Bennett, a retired band instructor from Spanish Fork (and not a relative of Sen. Bennett).

A veteran of several similar rallies, Jim Bennett held aloft a white banner bearing the words "Don't Tread on Me." He said the national tour was better organized than previous events he's attended.

The crowd was treated to a combination of heartfelt speeches and tea party anthems set to a rock 'n' roll beat. A Latino singer and former evangelist going by the name Polatik performed a rap number, backed up by a row of flag-waving, dancing children.

A group of entrepreneurs following the tour sold tea party T-shirts, anti-Obama pins and banners, as well as books and CDs by the various tea party performers.

Kaitlyn Bourne, a BYU student from Fort Worth, Texas, said she was drawn to the rally, her first, "because I don't think Washington is on the right track, and I feel like something needs to be done. But I thought there would be a lot more people."

Holding the event on a weekday morning kept some people away, but Alan J. Simmons left his commercial real estate business long enough to attend because he felt the climate in Washington was keeping people from investing in new business.

Sherry Ash of Mapleton said she was taking a break from work to attend the rally because "the Constitution we all love is not being followed. I think this is going to make a difference."

Lee and Bridgewater lined the area just outside the rally with campaign signs and greeted the crowd, while Eagar circulated through the crowd shaking hands and passing out campaign brochures.

Sen. Bennett, who maintains a Provo office inside the courthouse, has been targeted by Utah tea party members who believe he is not conservative enough. An unscientific poll of the crowd failed to turn up a single Bennett supporter.

"I lived in Nevada, and I didn't vote for (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid either," Jim Bennett said.

E-mail:araymond@desnews.com, mhaddock@desnews.com