RESTON, Virginia (CNN) – Rep. Jim Moran's health care town hall Tuesday night spiraled into chaos and displays of political theater as opponents of the president's overhaul plan spent two hours trying to shout down the Virginia Democrat and his party's former national chairman, Howard Dean.
Foes of President Barack Obama's health care plan had publicly pledged to disrupt the event. Three hours before it began, hundreds of area residents were already lined up outside the venue, a high school in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Reston. When the town hall began, at least 2,500 people packed the high school gymnasium, with even more left in line outside.
The crowd generally reflected the demographics of Moran's solidly Democratic northern Virginia district, with supporters of the president's health care overhaul effort - many wielding signs provided by Organizing for America, his campaign arm at the Democratic National Committee - outnumbering opponents by at least 5 to 1. Organizing for America and union organizers, many on hand for the night's event, have urged supporters to pack town halls in response to similar efforts by health care overhaul opponents.
Moran spent most of the two-hour event addressing a dozen false rumors about the health care proposal being weighed by Congress. Several questioners asked whether the congressman would guarantee that he would not exclude his own insurance plan from the effects of the measures in the $1.6 trillion proposal.
Moran explained that members of Congress were covered by the plan provided to all federal employees, and that would not change.
"I've already answered the question," the weary-sounding congressman told one woman, the fourth to ask.
As other lawmakers have done over the August congressional recess, Moran and his staff used techniques designed to limit the possibility of town hall disruptions. The event was preceded by a reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, the distribution of George Washington's "Rules of Civility," and an invocation delivered by a clergyman. The town hall was officially limited to Moran's constituents, and questioners were called forward to speak by name only, their questions drawn from a pool submitted before the event.
Those precautions were mostly unsuccessful. The rabbi who delivered the opening prayer was booed several times, once after telling the audience that he believed people should be able to disagree civilly. Some individuals asked questions that differed from the ones that they had submitted. One woman apparently falsely claimed another questioner's identity, and was led out of the event by Fairfax County police as opponents of the president's health care plan stood and applauded her.
The most vocal protester on hand was Randall Terry, former leader of anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who had announced plans to create a disturbance at the event. Before the meeting, Terry and his supporters presented two skits outside, the final performances in a multi-city tour slamming the president's plan.
In one skit, Terry - wearing surgeon's clothing and standing beside a young woman dressed as an elderly woman - held a baby doll and stabbed it repeatedly with a rubber knife.
In another, a man in an Obama mask beat two individuals with a replica of a whip - one of them an older man with a walker, another a woman dragging a baby doll with a thick white chain. The woman wore clothing treated to appear blood-stained.
In the skit, the elderly man told Obama, "I'll give you all my money."
The woman said: "Don't hit me no more, massa. I'll give you the money to kill the babies. I'll give it to you."
Terry said the performances were designed to be jarring.
"We're trying to use jolting images to shock people into reality," he told CNN. "What (Obama) represents is far more horrific than playing around with a plastic knife and baby doll."
There were a few minor confrontations between supporters and opponents of the president's plan. Inside, Terry helped lead a constant stream of catcalls that steadily rose in intensity as the event continued, and became overwhelming when Dean, a former Vermont governor and physician, went to the microphone.
Protesters yelled, "We won't be your slaves!" A young boy in a red baseball cap waved a sign that read: "Obama Lies. Grandma Dies."
After a few minutes, Moran - who had started the event by praising democratic dissent - retook the mike, gesturing toward the protesters. "These folks are not from the 8th (congressional) district," he said, mentioning Terry by name. "They don't really belong here, and I'm going to ask them to leave."
At the last moment, as police officers approached Terry, Moran seemed to change his mind, offering the activist the chance to ask the first question of the evening if he would allow Dean to finish his remarks uninterrupted. Terry responded by yelling that Dean was a "baby killer."
"Kick him out! Kick him out!" chanted most of the crowd. Their cheers rose as police escorted Terry out.
– CNN's Lisa Desjardins contributed to this report.