By Patrick Temple-West
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 1,000 Tea Party activists protested in Washington on Wednesday over the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Demonstrators on Capitol Hill waved signs denouncing taxes, immigration reform and gun control - staple issues for the conservative movement - in one of their largest gatherings since Democratic President Barack Obama was re-elected in November.
The IRS is in the midst of its worst scandal in years. The tax agency's chief was fired last month after allegations that it unfairly subjected Tea Party-aligned groups' tax-exemption applications to extra scrutiny from 2010 to 2012.
Linda Wimberley, who rode a bus to the rally with about 50 others from Tennessee, said the scandal confirms an IRS bias against conservative groups.
"People are starting to realize it's not just conspiracy theories, there really is stuff going on," she said.
With a congressional investigation producing a steady flow of news that is embarrassing to the agency and the Obama administration, the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella organization of Tea Party groups, organized the "Audit the IRS" rally.
"The IRS stuff is going to give them cause to do more fundraising and regain their national reputation," said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor and co-author of a book about the movement.
The Tea Party burst onto the American scene in 2009, a loose coalition of deficit hawks, libertarians, opponents of Obama's healthcare law, and advocates of lower and simpler taxes. It played a big role in helping Republicans capture majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.
Republicans with strong Tea Party ties spoke at the rally, including U.S. Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
"Most of the elected Republicans have a very strong incentive to keep talking about it," said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University professor who has studied the Tea Party movement. "It's great for giving speeches that say, 'We're with you.'"
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Doina Chiacu)