RICHMOND, Va.—On Saturday two men came here in search of the rejuvenating power of the Tea Party. Four years ago, both Rick Santorum and George Allen lost their bids to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. The 2006 defeats had put paid to their national political ambitions. And both went down to defeat as punchlines, with Santorum's name turned into a sticky curse word by gay activists and Allen tainted by the word he used to insult an Indian-American Democratic tracker, "Macaca."
Ah, but then came the Tea Party. Allen and Santorum appeared before almost 3,000 activists at the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention, each recasting himself as a grass-roots hero unfairly maligned by the left. Before and after his speech, Allen stood in a hallway of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, wife Susan by his side, shaking the hands of people who'd voted for him before and were pleading with him to run again.
"We get along very well," Allen tells me. "They've invited me to speak to many of their events."
"You have a voting record that they all very much appreciate," Susan chimes in.
"Oh, yeah!" says Allen. "So many of these things they talk about were things I was fighting for as a delegate." He speaks with genuine-sounding admiration about how much the activists know. "I like these folks that carry around the Constitution."
A few steps away, Dennis O'Connor is handing out the most popular lapel sticker of the weekend: bright orange and visible from 20 paces, it says, "Guns Save Lives," a slogan of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. I ask what he'd think of a political comeback—which everybody now expects—from Allen.
"I have mixed feelings about him," says O'Connor. "He's not … bad. It depends, I guess, on who's running against him."
The Tea Partiers can afford to be choosy. While some in the movement are skittish about the elections next month, most are reading the polls and watching Fox News and finding out about candidate "moneybombs" and fully expecting a Republican landslide.
There was nothing to dissuade them in Richmond, at an event co-sponsored by 33 local Tea Party groups. Dick Morris, the former adviser to Bill Clinton turned Republican enthusiasm-peddler, appeared at the conference to announce that Republicans were leading in 10 Senate races, and if the party wanted it badly enough, it could win 100 House seats. He rattled off the names of the Democrats to beat in Virginia's competitive races, but the crowd's reaction revealed where their emotions were.
"You can beat Tom Perriello!" said Morris. * There was an eruption of boos—evidence of the deep unpopularity of the cherubic freshman House member representing Charlottesville and chunks of southern Virginia, who had voted for most of President Obama's agenda. Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group that co-sponsored the conference, has anti-Perriello literature at its table.