When Lou Dobbs stepped onto the stage as the closing keynote speaker of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot’s Convention in Richmond on Saturday, he was greeted by exuberant screams, the waving of American flags and declarations of love.

“I love you too,” Dobbs said, his voice reverberating over whistles and cheers. “And I want to apologize to you for my voice quality—I’ve been talking too much, if you can imagine such a thing.”

Following Isabel Macdonald’s investigative piece published last week in The Nation, outing the conservative pundit and political hopeful for relying on undocumented workers to maintain his estate and show jumping horses, Dobbs has certainly been doing a lot of talking. In the two days leading up to his appearance at the “Constitution Still Matters” themed convention, Dobbs has been defending himself against what he characterized as a “smear campaign” on his radio show, MSNBC and Good Morning America.

The conservative-leaning Richmond Times Dispatch published an editorial Thursday saying “the presence of Lou Dobbs will sully the proceedings,” with hopes that the convention could take him off the roster.

A second editorial was published Friday, commenting that an atmosphere of hypocrisy would besmirch the event not because it was held in a convention center paid for by taxes, but rather because Dobbs would be a headliner.

“That’s a classic liberal media tactic on the Tea Party movement: they’re too dumb to get it the first time, so they’re gonna repeat themselves real slowly the second,” said filmmaker Steve Bannon in his introduction of Dobbs.  “Well, to the editorial board of the Times Dispatch, I think they learned a lesson that the British learned 235 years ago: patriots know how to return fire.”

Bannon, whose Tea Party Trilogy films played throughout the convention, said that The Nation “did not attack Lou Dobbs, they attacked you – they want to suppress your voice.”  He then accused The Nation’s former editor, I.F. Stone, of having been a KGB agent. (Stone was the Washington editor of the magazine from 1940 to 1946, and there is no evidence that he was a KGB agent.)

Dobbs agreed with Bannon regarding the alleged motives of the exposé and continued that the “very same reporter who wrote the article admitted that I never did hire illegal immigrants or that the companies I owned hired illegal immigrants.” 

While Dobbs has repeated this statement in his tweets and on television, MacDonald clarified this “admission” to Dobbs directly on “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” Thursday evening.  “I don’t have evidence that you directly knowingly employed any undocumented worker,” Macdonald said.  “All I’m saying is that they labored on your properties.”

For the most part, however, the record number 2,800 Tea Partiers registered at the two-day convention either hadn’t heard of or didn’t care about the controversy—or so it appeared from conversations with several attendees.

“I didn’t know anything about it before Dobbs brought it up,” said John McDonough of Alexandria.

Many were sympathetic to Dobbs’s plight – Dobbs has come out strongly against employers of illegal immigrants – and put the blame on the shoulders of the companies through which he subcontracted the work.

“We tend to be a trusting people,” Lorraine Schrecengost said.

“Have you ever hired a sub-contractor?” Scott Cooper barked before he abruptly ended the interview.

Those in the Tea Party movement who criticized Dobbs had been doing so long before Macdonald’s article appeared, mostly because they think Dobbs’ stance on immigration is too liberal.

“It seems like they always get them this way, everybody who runs,” said William Buchanan, legislative director for the American Council for Immigrant Reforms (ANCIR), referring to Dobbs and California’s Meg Whitman while manning his booth. “But I’m skeptical of the man anyway because [Dobbs is] for legal immigration… and from an environmental point of view, that’s just disastrous.  And obviously there are cultural issues.  Anybody can be an American, any race and culture, but you have to assimilate.”

The ANCIR, an organization that not only opposes amnesty for undocumented workers but also advocates a decrease in legal immigration, sponsored a seminar at the convention entitled, “Immigration Watch 2010 – Powerful Tools to Make Your Voices Heard in Washington and Richmond.”

When Congressman Virgil Goode entered the room mid-seminar – welcomed with a standing ovation – he gave an impromptu speech stating:

“If we are going to secure, to take back America, we’re going to have to reduce legal and illegal immigration because if we don’t, as my father said, ‘we’re going to be in a hole so deep hope will be a stranger and mercy will never reach us.’”

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which grades politicians for their voting records on immigration issues, saw the incident with Dobbs as an opportunity to push conservative immigration policy.  “I think, more than anything, it does undergird the need to do what he’s asked for too, which is to mandatorily verify everybody,” Beck said.

In interviews, The Nation’s Isabel Macdonald has emphasized that the lesson to draw from her story is in fact the opposite: we need a sane immigration policy that confronts the reality that our economy depends on the labor of undocumented immigrants.

Dobbs himself, however, did not speak about immigration issues.  The closest he came was when discussing the need for America to reignite its “can do” spirit.

“And by the way, ‘can do’ is English, it’s not Spanish,” Dobbs growled into the microphone, continuing that  “when we say ‘Si, se puede,’” – pronouncing it pued-ah rather than the correct pued-ay — “we mean it… And we’ll say it in any language you want.”