But, then, Palin's bid to harness the power of the rising right-wing movement while simultaneously hailing its aversion to charismatic leaders was just one obvious paradox in a weekend that was chock full of them. The Tea Party movement that started less than a year ago with conservative resentment over President Obama's ascension and his agenda is now balancing success stories - its role in helping Sen. Scott Brown's Massachusetts miracle - with sharp growing pangs. Activists were torn over boosting the GOP or bashing it, and whether it's really a revolution when it's funded - at least here at theme-park-y Opryland Hotel - with Platinum Visa cards.
No one heightened the contradictions more than the keynote speaker, whose reported $100,000 speaking fee came out of those high-priced tickets, including $549 for the whole confab - luxury hotel and airfare not included. Her speech, larded with her hallmark high-school-pep-rally snark, sounded at times like someone had hit the "pause" button on the 2008 campaign - absent the news that Obama had defeated her ticket-mate John McCain with 53 percent of the vote.
She said that the Tea Party movement is "a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a TelePrompTer," repeating the popular talk-radio knock on Obama - yet hi-def snapshots showed that Palin had scrawled her own crib sheet on her left hand, with buzzwords like "energy" and "lift American spirits." She devoted a surprisingly large portion of her talk not to lifting spirits but to bashing the president's foreign policy, clearly seeking to contrast her moose-dressing persona with what conservatives see as Obama's too-talky style.
"To win that war [on terrorism], it's time the nation had a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at a lectern," she declared, drawing her biggest applause of the night. It was a portion of the red meat that Palin delivered even to those attendees who ordered the shrimp scampi, a room distrustful of Ivy League academics, Hollywood and the media. It was Ronald Reagan's 99th birthday, but the real ghost in the room was the resentment politics of Richard Nixon.
"She is bold, and she speaks for the silent majority of America," said Vicki Chapman, who came all the way from Claremont, Calif., outside Los Angeles, clutching her dog-eared copy of Palin's Going Rogue, for the three-day event. She said that she'd enthusiastically back a Palin 2012 presidential bid.
Palin's long-awaited speech - in many ways, a born-again political experience after abruptly quitting as Alaska governor last summer and writing that hugely best-selling autobiography - aimed to answer the questions that shrouded the convention like the gray, damp blanket of February drizzle outside: questions about the intersection of politics versus profit, of grass-roots passion versus top-down leadership.
The convention organizer, Tea Party Nation head Judson Phillips, a Nashville lawyer, said in an interview that finding a strong leader who can take the White House back from Obama in three years is his ultimate goal, and he hoped that bringing Palin here was part of that conversation.
"The Tea Party movement has to have, if not a leader, at least a standard-bearer," said Phillips, who wouldn't discuss Palin's fee, which she has vaguely promised to give back to the movement. "Our end game is 2012, our end game is to win the White House. We've got to have somebody to do that."
Indeed, it was impossible to find anyone here who didn't rave about the conservative warrior from Wasilla, hailed universally as a plain speaker with Main Street values. William Temple, a minister and political activist from Brunswick, Ga., who stood out among the bland plaid sweaters and loafers by dressing as Declaration of Independence signer Button Gwinnett topped by a tri-corner hat, said that "the real men in the Republican Party are both women" - a reference to Palin and right-wing Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. "The leader will emerge."
Still, it's not 100 percent clear whether that will be Palin. Many of the activists here are worried that their grass-roots lobbying efforts would be distracted by a charismatic leader, while others think that Palin still plays too much footsie with the moderate GOP insiders that they're rebelling against.
If anyone would seem to be a 2012 Palin voter, it would be Suzanne Curran, a white-haired conservative activist from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley who volunteered for Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign; she was wearing a "Palin - You Betcha" button and said that back home she has a McCain-Palin yard sign with the "McCain" part chopped off. "I'd love to sit for a cinnamon bun and a spot of tea with her."
But she's uncertain about a Palin White House bid - in part because she's unhappy that Palin is raising money for McCain's 2010 Senate campaign. "I need to hear more," said Curran. "I would like to hear more about her decision to support Senator McCain, because Senator McCain is definitely from the liberal wing of the Republican Party."
More broadly, the Tea Party convention struggled to spotlight its mad-at-big-government, mad-at-Obama movement as a grass-roots revolution amid controversy over the steep cost and Palin's fee.
A rebel band of local tea-partiers even took to the plush carpets for a guerrilla news conference to denounce the gathering's for-profit status - Phillips claimed it finished barely in the black - and charging that it was aimed at elites. "Government of the money, by the money, and for the money is unacceptable," said Mark Herr, of the Tennessee Tea Party.
That wasn't the only identity crisis. While local volunteers told their grass-roots success stories in small meeting rooms, Palin's predecessors on the main stage seemed determined to drag the new insurgency into the muck of past controversy. Joseph Farah, publisher of the right-wing WorldNet Daily, devoted half his speech to discredited claims about Obama's birth certificate. And failed 2008 White House hopeful Tom Tancredo made headlines when he complained that "we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country" - a painful echo of Jim Crow-era voting laws.
Rising conservative media figure Andrew Breitbart strived to turn the allegation around, telling a cheering crowd that "this is a form of intimidation that the mainstream media does, is they call you a racist." At the time, there appeared to be only two black conference attendees in the room: a congressional hopeful and a minister who'd given the invocation the night before.
But race wasn't the only barrier. There was also an age gap. At another point, Phillips asked the big room if anyone was a Baby Boomer, born between 1946 and 1964 - and almost every hand shot up. So this was their delayed bizarro-world Woodstock, three days of anti-government music, with occasional dancing in the muck of conspiracy. And Palin, with her discordant national anthem, was their Jimi Hendrix.