081509 obama protesters
Protesters line up outside the Gallatin Field Airport in Belgrade as President Barack Obama arrives on Air Force One for a town hall meeting about health care reform. Photo by MICHAEL ALBANS/Associated Press

BELGRADE - Out among the grasshoppers on an empty field southeast of Gallatin Field Airport, America's health-care reform debate played out loudly Friday as people chanted dueling slogans and hoisted signs with competing messages.

While 1,300 people heard President Barack Obama at a town hall meeting in an airport hangar, a crowd at least that large spent hours on the grassy expanse voicing their opinions at impromptu rallies.

It was loud and raucous at times, with a brief shoving match between supporters and critics of Obama and the Democrats' health-care reform proposals. The Tea Party group of Bozeman accused health-care reform supporters of taking the space they had paid a fee to reserve.

"I think the amount of passion out here is a testament to the strength of our democracy," said Robert Struckman of Missoula, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, which favors health care reform. "How awesome is it with all these people with such sharply different views are out here."

On the other side, Jerry Able of Bozeman raised a sign with a skeleton dangling from it that he said symbolizes someone dying while waiting to see a doctor under Obama's health care proposal.

"This is a great event," Able said. "It's a free-speech matter. They have a right to be here. We have a right to be here. They're passionate. I'm passionate."

At times, groups with opposing groups took turns yelling chants at each other.

"Hey, hey! Ho, ho! The status quo has got to go!" shouted backers of health-care reform.

"Hey, hey! Ho, ho! The Chicago thug has got to go," fired back critics of Obama, who lived in Chicago.

Under the din, however, at least a few earnest conversations over heath care took place between people of strongly opposing viewpoints.

"I had conversations with several gentlemen who might be characterized as the other side," said Teresa Jacobs of Missoula, who said she favors significant health care reform.

"All of us wanted to reform health care," Jacobs said. "They wanted tort reform first. I want public option first."

She said she agreed with them that abortions should not be covered under health care reform.

On the other side, Able said he had some good conversations with people who had opposing views. He said it was encouraging to see the strong views expressed by all sides in the debate over health care reform.

These conversations, however, appeared to the exception.

At one point, a number of people from both sides stood a few feet apart, yelling slogans back and forth at each other and waving their signs. A rainstorm broke it up.

Earlier, a water-tanker firefighting vehicle, brought in by the Bozeman Tea Party, made use of the loudspeakers on the top of the truck.

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"Welcome to the second American revolution," said Henry Kriegel of the Bozeman Tea Party. "Welcome Tea Party. Welcome freedom fighters. We will not be bullied by these fools."

Later, the group used the loudspeakers to air conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh's radio show and drown out some chanting by the pro-Obama, pro-health-care reform supporters.

Even later, the group played live radio coverage of Obama's speech, with the crowd around the truck booing at times when Obama spoke. Even some of the supporters of Obama and health-care reform listened in.

Meanwhile, Anna Gustina, who heads Organizing for America, Obama's political organization in Montana, called it "a great day" for the group. She said the group worked with the SEIU and Montana AFL-CIO to charter five buses to bring workers from Billings, Great Falls and Missoula to support the president's health care reform efforts.

On the other side, the Patients' First bus, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, featured a giant red hand symbolically trying to stop health-care reform, brought some people out.

"We don't want any program that puts bureaucrats between patients and doctors," said Jake Eaton, who heads the Montana chapter of the group.

Meanwhile, Linda Kenoyer of Livingston spoke out for Montanans for Single Payer.

"We're trying to get a message out that there is a third way besides support for Obama's plan, which we see as a gift to the private insurance companies," she said. "We're here for health reform. We're here to stand for a Medicare for all system. We think a single-payer program is the only program that is affordable, fair and effective."

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