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On a sunny holiday weekend, more than 100 people packed into a Missoula hotel conference room to talk about which Western state has the most fertile ground for a grass-roots freedom movement.

The two-day conference, officially called the "Grand Western Conference," was sponsored by the Montana Libertarian Party to discuss the Free State Project.

As the Baltimore Sun reported in February, the project, hatched by a Yale University student and supported by many Libertarians, is looking for a home to launch a "bloodless coup" that would cut federal support, taxes and laws.

The ultimate goal, said project founder Jason Sorens, is to create a pro-liberty culture, where there are no publicly funded schools, gun control laws would be abolished, and health and social services privatized.

Government's only job, he said to his Missoula audience Sunday, would be to protect against "force and fraud."

Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and New Hampshire currently top the list as potential landing spots for the project and its growing ranks of supporters, who have pledged to move to the utopia-in-the rough to make the project work by becoming residents and community leaders.

But before a home can be found - preferably a sparsely populated state with an independent spirit and an outspoken citizenry disenchanted with state and federal government - freedom lovers must unite and talk about it.

This weekend, people from all over the country came to Missoula to do just that and chat with Sorens in person.

Maire Black said she traveled to the conference from Washington state because she's frustrated with mainstream politics and federal controls.

"Everything these days - it's just more big government," she said. "We have lost the spirit of the West - the spirit of individualism, where you can do for yourself without getting government handouts."

Although Black said she considers herself a Republican, she supports the Libertarian-inspired Free State Project.

She points to a sticker circulating in the crowd and laughs in agreement at its message: "Under Republicans, man exploits man. Under Democrats, it's just the opposite."

Wearing a T-shirt with the words "tyranny response team" printed across the back, Ingri Cassel said she came to the conference to pitch Idaho as the project's perfect home.

"It already has the best laws for freedom," Cassel said, and pointed out that she was able to start her monthly newspaper, "The Idaho Observer," without a business license.

Cassel said she believes the nation has become too dependent on the federal government, which is why states are experiencing excessive budget crunches and crises.

Freedom, she said, is having people become more self-reliant and responsible, and supporting their communities through volunteerism.

"Like so many other people, I am tired of the federal government telling me how to run my life," said Janet King, who traveled from her California home for the conference. "They are the ones who set the boundaries for what we can and can't do - I'm tired of that, and I work for the government."

Since Sorens first aired his project in the online journal of Libertarian Enterprise in July 2001, 3,700 people have pledged support to make the project happen, and to move to whatever state is calls home.

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Once the project's membership reaches 5,000, a vote will be taken to decide where the project will go and what it should do once it gets there.

"The hope is to get 20,000 freedom lovers to move - we may not get this - but that is the goal," Sorens said.

While most people think his ideas, and the Free State Project, are radical and untested, grass-roots political groups have been hammering away at and morphing into mainstream political parties since America was founded, he said.

Just look at the current Republican Party, he said - it has been successfully captured by the Christian Right.

Montana, he said, could become part of this country's colorful political history.

"Montana is a good prospect," agreed Mike Fellows, state chairman of the Montana Libertarian Party.

There is already a political environment that supports freedom and autonomy, Fellows said, citing the state's open-meeting laws, and the Supreme Court's ruling to throw out the sexual deviant law.

"All of this is still a long ways off," Fellows said of the Free State Project, "but these kinds of meetings are getting people to talk about it.

"It certainly has gotten people talking about the ideas of liberty."

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