TAMPA, FLA. -- As Republican Party officials hunkered down in advance of Hurricane Isaac, now barreling toward the Gulf of Mexico, a storm was brewing on another front, even as they prepared to nominate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate.
Just days before the Republican National Convention, hundreds of Ron Paul revolutionaries gathered at the Florida State Fairgrounds on the outskirts of Tampa for a festival dedicated to the ideas of their hero. And, boy, arre they pissed -- pissed that their man, the nominally libertarian Texas congressman and erstwhile presidential candidate, was passed over for a speaking spot, and infuriated by a new set of rules forced through the Republican National Committee on Friday by a top Romney lieutenant that target the Paulites' convention delegate strategy.
"It's like Hitler," the wife of one delegate said to me.
From the main stage at the P.A.U.L. Festival (People Awakening and Uniting for Liberty), Romney took more knocks. Thomas E. Woods, a crowd favorite, and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, called Romney a eliciting cheers from the boisterous audience. When Woods heaped scorn on the notion of Paul Ryan as a true conservative, the crowd booed loudly at the mere mention of the vice presidential candidate's name.
While many of the big names in the curious world of Ron Paul devotees graced the festival podium, noticeably absent was the man himself. Militia movement hero Larry Pratt, president of Gun Owners of America, was on the program. Lew Rockwell, the former Ron Paul chief of staff and rumored author of those racist Ron Paul newsletters, addressed the crowd. Pastor Chuck Baldwin, whose 2008 presidential run on the Constitution Party ticket won Paul's endorsement, offered remarks. And Stewart Rhodes, founder of the neo-militia group Oathkeepers, was scheduled to rail against the government from the stage.
But with his own delegates threatening trouble for Romney during the nomination process even as his son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., prepared to deliver a prime-time address at the convention, Ron Paul was perhaps not looking to shine a light on his longtime, hard-right associates. Instead, he delivered a speech away from the guns-and-glory show of the P.A.U.L. fest, drawing a reported 10,000 supporters to the Sun Dome sports arena on the University of South Florida Campus.
But if G.O.P. leaders thought they could count on the neo-libertarian icon to calm the consternation of his delegates toward the party before they take their seats on the convention floor, they figured wrong. Paul was reportedly offered the opportunity to address the national convention, but only if he allowed the Romney campaign to vet his speech, and if he promised to give Romney his unqualified endorsement. Paul declined the offer.
As the primary season began to wind down with Ron Paul having won not a single Republican caucus or primary, his followers began seeking ways to leverage their participation at the the national convention. Some would attend as delegates Ron Paul won fair and square in states that apportion delegates through formulas based on the percentage of a the vote won by a primary candidate. But others entered state party conventions to run as delegates on the Romney slate, or as "unbound" delegates. As the name suggested, the unbound can cast a nomination vote on the convention floor for the candidate of their own choosing.
At state-level and county conventions across the country, as the mechanics of the making of delegate slates played out this season, it became clear that Paul's supporters had organized aggressively to seat as many Paul supporters as possible as convention delegates. Some were seated by states whose party rules require them to vote for the presumptive nominee, but their behavior on nomination day remained unpredictable. So, Ben Ginsburg, Romney's top legal adviser, got the Republican National Convention Committee, according to BuzzFeed's Zeke Miller, to vote in a rule change that would put an end to the practice of electing "unbound" delegates. In the future, no delegate will enter a Republican National Convention without being expressly pledged to vote on the floor for the candidate who won his or her state.
But if Republicans think that will put an end to the Paul revolution, they've got another thing coming. At this point, not even Ron Paul could put an end to the Paul revolution, if that's what he wanted. When I asked a Midwestern convention delegate at the P.A.U.L. fest whether Paul followers would ever heed a call to stand down, even from their hero, if Paul deigned to ask such a thing, the delegate replied, off the record: "They have their own minds."
Not that Paul seems inclined to mend any fences. Alluding to the G.O.P. as the proverbial big tent that apparently has little room for his followers, Paul promised the Sun Dome crowd: "We'll get into the tent, believe me -- because we will become the tent in the future."
The Paulites, you see, have a plan to get their hands on the levers of power at the county and state levels of the G.O.P. As Paul Trake, a Ron Paul delegate from Missouri explained, one third of the members of the Jackson County Republican Party are Ron Paul supporters. And by 2016, he predicts, Ron Paul supporters will make up the majority of the committee.
As the Paul fans racked up delegate slates in states from Maine to Nevada, the Republican Party sought to keep some of them from being seated -- maneuvers that the Paul folks have challenged in court.
A deal was ultimately reached between the Paul campaign and the Republican Party, according to National Public Radio, in which the party "will seat some, but not all, of his delegates..."
If there was ever a chance the the Paul delegates would sit down and play nice for the cameras when the roll is called for a vote on Romney's nomination to lead the party, Ginsberg's rule-change may have quashed it.
As Paul himself told those thousands of supporters in the Sun Dome: "They’ve learned how to bend rules, break rules and now they want to rewrite the rules,” Paul said. “They’ve overstepped the bounds."
As Morton Blackwell, the longtime organizer of the right, and mentor to many of the movement's leading figures, told BuzzFeed: ""There are very large numbers of people who supported other candidates, in particular Ron Paul, who will see this as an attack on their behavior."
Before the threat posed by Isaac persuaded party leaders to cancel the opening day of the conference, they likely thought they had avoided a potentially ugly scene during the roll call process by which convention delegates state their preferred nominee, since none of the big networks were planning to broadcast the first, procedurally laden day of the convention. But now with a compressed schedule, the roll call could take place in plain view -- and whether the storm will bypass the tent is anybody's guess.
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