A fierce numbers battle has erupted in the aftermath of Saturday's Capitol Hill rally by "tea party" conservatives that is not over the growth of government, the budget deficit or even the $1 trillion cost of President Obama's health care plan, but about the size of the crowd.
Most news organizations reported that the boisterous, anti-big-government rally at the West Front of the Capitol drew "tens of thousands" of demonstrators from across the country, but some of its organizers and many who attended the event insisted that more than a million people showed up. Some put the number at closer to 2 million.
Newspaper and network television Web sites, including The Washington Times, were inundated with angry e-mails from participants who said the crowd was much larger than they reported, sometimes attributing the higher estimates to the U.S. Park Police, the Capitol Police, the Washington, D.C., fire department, the London Times, other news outlets such as ABC News, and even photographs showing a massive crowd stretching from the doorsteps of Congress down the national Mall toward the Washington Monument.
But it turns out that no official organization, including the Park Police, Capitol Police or the fire department, put out an estimate of the crowd size, and some photographs showing immense crowds that appeared on some conservative Web sites turned out to be pictures of a demonstration 10 years ago.
"Ten to 15 years ago, we used to give crowd estimates, but not now. The fundamental goal of the Park Police is to provide protective, law enforcement services," said Sgt. David Schlosser, public information officer at the U.S. Park Police.
"We don't want our services to become the story," he added.
As it turned out, FreedomWorks, the Washington-based conservative advocacy group that was the chief organizer of the rally's arrangements, corrected an earlier estimate of 1 million to 1.5 million that it attributed to ABC News and put the figure between 600,000 and 700,000. ABC News denied it had reported a crowd that large and said its reports put the size of the demonstration in the "tens of thousands" range.
"The debate over how many people were actually there is now raging from one extreme to the other," former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, the national chairman of FreedomWorks, said in a letter to the organization's supporters.
"I believe the truth is that our crowd actually approached 1 million," Mr. Armey said, but added that whatever "the actual number, the 9/12 March on Washington was far and away the largest gathering of limited-government conservative activists in history."
Estimating crowd sizes has long proved a contentious and politically delicate science. The National Park Service was directed by Congress to stop providing an official guess after organizers of the 1994 Million Man March protested the NPS estimate of 400,000.
Projections for the throngs at President Obama's January inauguration ranged from 800,000 to 1.8 million. The larger number would shatter the estimated 1.2 million-strong record said to have attended President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 inauguration.