WASHINGTON — As spending debates rage in Washington, thousands of conservative Tea Party loyalists rallied nationwide Saturday against taxes and big government, fired up for a 2012 US election battle.
Several dozen Tea Party movement rallies kicked off, including in Madison, Wisconsin, where 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made clear that conservatives worried about spiraling US debt would go all out to wrest the White House from Barack Obama next year.
"These are the front lines in the battle for the future of our country," Palin, taking the stage in a snow squall, told a cheering crowd.
"Mr President, game on!" said the Tea Party favorite, who has flirted with her own possible presidential run.
"You ignored us in 2010 but you cannot ignore us in 2012."
But some 19 months before the next election, several of the rallies were sounding like campaign stops for potential Republican presidential hopefuls, including Donald Trump, who blasted the Obama administration for going soft on trade and failing to rein in spending.
The opinionated real-estate mogul whipped up supporters in Boca Raton, Florida, ticking off his conservative ideals. He has said he would announce in June his decision on whether to run.
He also offered a blistering critique of Obama, calling him a "disaster" but stopping short of repeating his trademark phrase "You're fired!" from Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" television show.
In the northeastern city of Boston on Friday, several hundred demonstrators heard Minnesota's former governor Tim Pawlenty sling slogans in an attempt to win over Tea Party die-hards.
"We can't spend more than we take in," Pawlenty roared from a makeshift podium beneath the dome of a gazebo on Boston Common.
"You can't do it as an individual, you can't do it as a family, you can't do it at your place of work and we can't let the government do it anymore."
Pawlenty was also one of four potential presidential candidates who attended a State House rally in Concord, New Hampshire, to make the case for smaller government.
He thanked the crowd there for being "modern-day Paul Reveres who are sounding the alarm... that we're here to take back our country."
The comments came as Republicans in the US House of Representatives won approval for a symbolic budget outline -- unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate -- that seeks to slash $4.4 trillion from deficits over the next decade.
The proposal would cut the Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly, poor and disabled while slashing taxes on the richest Americans and corporations.
Bruised by the grueling spending battle with his foes in Congress, Obama took a new swipe at the Republican budget plan, saying it would give $1 trillion in tax breaks to the wealthiest two percent of Americans.
Earlier, he had presented his own plan for a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years.
But some at Boston's Tea Party rally suggested even the Republican plan won't go far enough.
"I think there's a lot of unhappiness with the budget deal that was reached," said Greater Boston Tea Party president Christen Varley, speaking of the 11th-hour agreement that will slash some $38.5 billion in spending this year.
"We're kind of all-or-nothing people," Varley said.
Patty Locke, chair of the Republican Town Committee of Easton, Massachusetts, complained about the "crazy" debt. "We need to trim back the budgets," she added.
Heated shouting matches broke at the Boston rally when megaphone-wielding counter-demonstrators appeared near the stage shouting: "Racist, sexist, anti-gay! Tea Party bigots, go away!"
The Boston event, coinciding with the day Americans usually must file their tax returns, was notably smaller than last year's, but some said momentum was on the rise, even as Republican leaders compromised with Democrats on the spending bill far more than many Tea Party faithful would have liked.
"What the government is doing is undermining our entire value system and our way of life," said Mark Swan, a Boston-area construction worker.
"The only way we can change that is if we get conservatives elected into positions of authority."