Speaking to a Tea Party rally ringed by protesters outside the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Saturday, Sarah Palin defended Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's stance against public employee unions and then took aim at both the national Republican Party and President Obama.

The former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee addressed a crowd of thousands that was whipped by sleet.

Palin praised Walker for taking steps to make Wisconsin financially stable. She spoke in the same venue where Walker has been pilloried for weeks for his moves to gut the power of public employee unions.

"He's not trying to hurt union members. Hey, folks, he's trying to save your jobs and your pensions," Palin said.

Challenging national Republicans to stand by principles such as cutting federal spending, Palin invoked the national champion University of Wisconsin women's hockey team.

"Maybe I should ask them," she said of the hockey team members, "if we should be suggesting to GOP leaders they need to learn how to fight like a girl."

In Des Moines, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty drew on the movement's critical eye about spending and the reach of government during his speech to about 200 Tea Party supporters who also braved a harsh spring wind.

"We're here today to send them this message: Don't tread on me," Pawlenty said, borrowing the line from the flags common at Tea Party rallies.

Cheers greeted Pawlenty when he hit on other familiar themes, including opposition to raising the federal government's borrowing authority and support for a balanced budget amendment.

"I think one of our basic messages is, the government's too damn big," he said.

Kathy Carley, a Republican and Tea Party activist from Altoona, said she found Pawlenty convincing.

"But I need to see him in another setting to see if he sounds the same," Carley said. "He sounds like he has the right principles."

In St. Paul, the Tea Party's annual "tax day" rally at the State Capitol attracted only a smattering of adherents on a cold, wet afternoon.

The rally lacked a headliner comparable to Sixth District Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, who roused more than 1,000 last year.

"Is the Tea Party dead because it could only bring out a couple hundred people on a cold, snowy day?" asked radio talker Mitch Berg, adding, "No, the Tea Party is watching them. The Tea Party is coming for them."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Associated Press and staff writer Bob Von Sternberg contributed to this report.