NASHVILLE

The burgeoning Tea Party movement should remain leaderless and decentralized, former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Saturday, calling the effort "bigger than any king or queen of the Tea Party."

"Put your faith in ideas. I caution against allowing this movement to be defined by one leader or operation," she told the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville. The small government movement is "a ground-up call to action that's forcing both parties to change the way they're doing business. This is about the people."

In her keynote address, Palin offered her analysis of President Obama's foreign policy record and delivered a critique of his stimulus package -- decrying the federal deficit as "generational theft." The list of Obama's broken promises is long, Palin said in her signature folksy delivery.

"How's that hopey, changing stuff workin' out for ya?" she asked 1,000 or so supporters who paid $300 apiece to attend her speech.

Palin applauded the president's decision to increase forces in Afghanistan while deriding his efforts at diplomacy, singling out North Korea.

"We must spend less time courting our adversaries and more time working with our allies," the former Alaska governor said. "The lesson of that last year is this: Foreign policy cannot be managed through the politics of personality."

In recent months, Palin has positioned herself outside the Republican Party establishment. She passed on an invitation to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and agreed to speak at the Nashville event.

Palin remained committed to the Nashville conference even after some Tea Party groups questioned its financing and accused the Tea Party Nation, which organized the event, of profiteering. A handful of sponsors pulled out of the event citing the hefty price tag of $560 for a ticket to the full convention.

Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., backed out over concerns they might later run into trouble with the House Ethics Committee.

The roughly 600 people who attended the full convention were overwhelmingly white, older and disproportionately from neighboring states. They seemed united in their opposition to the growth of government and their belief that Obama's policies represent a dangerous creep of socialism into American life. They also were united in plans to turn what began as a protest movement into a political force for conservative candidates in the midterm elections.

Working for legitimacy

Tea Party leaders sought to downplay notions that the movement is an anger-filled, fringe group they say they have been branded as.

"The movement is maturing," said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation. "The rallies were good for last year, because that's what we could do last year. This year we have to change things. We have got to win."

The goal is electing a conservative Congress in 2010 and a conservative president in 2012. To that end, organizers announced the formation of a political action committee they say could steer $10 million to conservative challengers this year.

And the convention tried to channel anger into what Phillips called "Electioneering 101." "What we want people to do is to leave here connected with other activists, so they can recruit good candidates, get candidates exposed to the voters, and get voters to the polls," he said. "If we just go out and hold signs and protest, that's not going to win the election."

But there was criticism from within the movement on Saturday, focused on Phillips.

Members of a group feuding with Phillips held a news conference outside the convention hall, at which they dismissed the event as lacking true local support.

"There's top-down leadership and there's grass-roots organization," said Anthony Shreeve of the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition, holding a copy of his group's charter.

Phillips, a Nashville attorney who has been active in local Republican politics, said that he did not expect to make much money off the convention and that any profit "would probably go back into future events to further the cause." Another convention is planned for July, he said.

Palin has suggested the same. In an opinion piece published recently in USA Today, she said she would put her speaker's fee -- which sources put at more than $100,000 -- back to "the cause."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.