The Sun Dome at the University of South Florida (USF) is typically filled with basketball fans and shouts of “Go Bulls!” But on the Sunday before the Republican National Convention, it hosted a different sort of enthusiast: libertarians yelling, “End the Fed!” As they did in 2008, dutiful supporters of presidential contender Ron Paul rallied to celebrate their hero before the official GOP gathering. About 11 miles from the hall where Mitt Romney is expected to accept the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday, the Congressman’s constituency made its voice heard.
Paul took the stage after almost five hours of other speakers, montage videos and musical acts. He spoke for more than an hour, criticizing the Federal Reserve, calling for an end to overseas wars and praising the virtues of individual liberty and small government. Paul also alluded to grudges with Republican National Committee members and Romney backers who had worked to keep Paul out of the spotlight. “We’ll get into the tent,” Paul told his supporters at the rally, “because we will become the tent eventually.” On Saturday, the 12-term Congressman and three-time presidential candidate told the New York Times that he had been offered a chance to speak at the convention — if the Romney team were allowed to vet his remarks and if Paul would unconditionally endorse the presumptive nominee. He didn’t agree.
For Paul to be officially nominated from the floor at the convention — which would guarantee high-profile coverage and a speech — he needed control of five state delegations. Some were still being contested as Republicans descended on Tampa, but Paul didn’t have the numbers. Campaign manager Jesse Benton said his team only had themselves to blame. But Romney co-opted a few of Paul’s delegates through a strategic use of Republican Party rules. “They definitely exploited their influence,” says 24-year-old Eric Brakey, one of Paul’s Maine delegates who was unseated and replaced by a Romney supporter. “We certainly feel disrespected by the Romney campaign.”
In the days leading up to the convention, party officials proposed a rule that would bar candidates from chasing unbound delegates at state conventions — Paul’s approach this election cycle. Those at the rally interpreted it as a means of stifling democratic competition. “They’ve learned how to bend rules, break rules and now they want to rewrite the rules!” Paul told the crowd. The thousands gathered in the Sun Dome — not quite filled to its 10,000-seat capacity — responded to his remarks with cheers, waving signs that read, “Ron Paul 2016!” and “Our country is sick. We need a doctor.”
Paul’s political relationship with Romney has been fraught but not entirely antagonistic. Throughout the primary, Paul attacked other candidates more than he did the former Massachusetts governor. “That made it pretty clear to anybody with brains that our side had started talking with the Romney people,” says a senior Paul staffer. And while the convention won’t feature a major role for Paul, he won’t be entirely absent either. Paul’s son Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has a prime-time speaking slot. A video tribute to Paul is on the schedule. More important, Paul’s fingerprints can be seen on the party’s official policy platform, which includes some of his pet issues, like giving Congress more oversight of the Federal Reserve. “To get the attention of the Establishment Republicans, where they felt compelled to talk about [auditing the Fed] in the platform,” Paul said at the rally, “I never dreamed.”
That doesn’t mean his supporters are ready to back Establishment Republicans. Some so-called Ronulans accuse Romney of paying lip service to their movement. “They want the youth that’s in this movement,” says Patricia Dixon, 80, who came to Tampa from the North Hollywood neighborhood in Los Angeles. “They want the fervor that’s in this movement. They think they can — excuse the term — trick us into supporting them.”
Despite the bitter feelings, Paul’s rally was in many ways cathartic. Delegates who will vote for Paul, with no hope of him becoming the nominee, stood and pumped their fists while the crowd cheered them on. They booed government restrictions on raw milk, cheered for obscure economists and scoffed at zinc pennies. Carol Paul, Ron’s wife for 55 years, was given a “first lady of liberty” award. Barry Goldwater Jr. told everyone that he takes life with a grain of salt “and a shot of tequila.” Blues Traveler’s John Popper raged on his harmonica and Jimmy Vaughan picked his guitar.
It was a fond farewell. Paul is expected to retire from Congress this year, and another presidential run is unlikely. Although he seems to hope that his son Rand will continue his legacy — a video tribute at USF hinted as much — the libertarian leader sounded a note of caution about the future. “We have to aim high. We have to be very idealistic. We have to use reason. And we have to have passion,” he said to great applause. Outside the rally, a large roadside sign flashed, “Vote for RON PAUL.” And then, “This is your last chance.”