WASHINGTON - Tony Rzasa's sign was like a magnet, attracting nods, smiles and an assortment of people Thursday who wanted to take his picture or pose for one with him outside the Capitol.
The placard read simply: "Palin-Bachmann 2012."
For those who saw Rzasa's sign, there was no mistaking the message. It was a call for a 2012 Republican presidential ticket led by former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, with Rep. Michele Bachmann as her running mate.
"They are decent, hardworking people," Rzasa of Remington, Va., said, with "beauty, brains and backbone."
Rzasa said he made the sign on the bus trip to Washington, where thousands gathered Thursday in response to a call from Bachmann and others to pay a "house call" on their congressional leaders and ask them to reject a Democrat-sponsored health care bill that the House of Representatives is expected to vote on Saturday.
Palin, Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008, is on everyone's list as a potential candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. But there hasn't been much mention of Bachmann appearing on a White House ticket.
The crowd that showed up for what became a giant pep rally suggested Bachmann is gaining rock-star appeal among grassroots conservatives. The St. Cloud Republican could have passed around a collection plate and come away with a hefty cache of contributions.
The event attracted many of the "tea party" activists who helped orchestrate protests at August town hall meetings and a Sept. 12 rally in Washington. Among tea party activists attending Thursday's event were Bob and Carolyn Kluk from Hugo, Minn.
The Kluks said they were inspired to come by Bachmann's call on Sean Hannity's TV show last Friday for a town hall-type gathering in the nation's capital.
"She's a very effective representative and very good at rallying people together," Bob Kluk said. "She's right next to Sarah Palin as far as somebody who's got national recognition."
Just before Bachmann walked to a lectern at the foot of the Capitol steps with a bevy of Republican colleagues, chants of "We want Michele" rang out from the crowd.
Among those clamoring to hear and see the congresswoman were Tami Schultz of Old Fort, N.C., and her sister, Tina Grindstaff from Morganton, N.C. Both said they were fans of Bachmann and would support her on a national campaign ticket.
"We wanted to see her because of her belief in the American people," Schultz said.
"She stands for what the true American people feel and want," Grindstaff added. "She's not superficial."
The sisters, who own a small restaurant, said they were opposed to the health care bill because they believe it would lead to higher taxes on their business.
The event had a political campaign flavor. It began with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and a singing of the national anthem. Then came speeches from House members in attendance and a few celebrities, including actors Jon Voight and John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff on the TV show "Cheers."
"I'm honored to be at the side of Michele Bachmann," Voight said. "She is a great congresswoman. She is a great human being, and she is a true American patriot."
Bachmann gave those in the crowd what they wanted to hear. She railed against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's health care bill, which she said would "take over 18 percent of the American economy."
But Bachmann also acknowledged a political reality in Washington: Democrats have the majority in both chambers of Congress, and they control the White House.
"Quite simply, the Republicans don't have the votes to kill this bill," Bachmann said. "We know we're limited. But what is unlimited is the voice of the American people."
When the final speech was given, Bachmann's staff urged her to "walk the line," the perimeter where supporters were eager to say "Thank you," snap a picture or shake her hand. She stopped to autograph Jerry Hershberger's copy of "Liberty and Tyranny," a conservative manifesto by Mark Levin, who was one of the speakers.
Hershberger, of Flower Mound, Texas, said it was the first political rally he had attended and he felt the issue was worth he cost of the trip.
"I'd rather pay now than pay later," he said.
If Bachmann has higher political aspirations, she could draw strength from the turnout at Thursday's rally. More immediate is her re-election to Congress in 2010, and for that she is undertaking a massive fundraising effort, using the Internet and soliciting through other groups.
Bachmann's most recent campaign finance report shows that more than $198,000 of the $345,000 she raised between June 30 and Oct. 1 came as unitemized contributions. These generally reflect donations under $200, many of which can be made online.
Bachmann acknowledges she may need all the money she can get, as Democrats have targeted her seat.
One of her potential 2010 challengers, Maureen Reed, issued a statement calling Thursday's rally a "Superbowl of Spin."
Reed campaign manager Jason Isaacson said Bachmann was trying to protect insurers who have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to her campaign committee.
"Michele Bachmann shouldn't be defending her political contributors who have reaped billion-dollar profits last quarter," Isaacson said. "She should be focusing on helping the hard-working families and businesses of Minnesota's 6th District that need health care reform now."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national campaign organization that helps elect Democrats to the House, said it was resuming its "Bachmann Watch" Web site as a truth meter on the congresswoman's statements.
"Whether trying to scare people with outrageous claims or mislead with outright lies on an issue as important as health insurance reform, Michele Bachmann simply can't be trusted," said the DCCC's Gabby Adler.
By LARRY BIVINS
Gannett Washington Bureau
Copyright 2009 by Gannet News Service. All Rights Reserved.)