The Ron Paul Rebellion Fizzles in Tampa

A group of Paulites walked out of the convention hall Wednesday night. Michelle Goldberg on one of the few intriguing story lines straying from Tampa’s tedious script.

Last night, as John McCain was in the middle of a speech accusing Obama of weakening American national security, several dozen Ron Paul delegates leapt to their feet and started chanting, “As Maine Goes, So Goes the Nation!” before marching out the door, through the hallways at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and into the steamy evening. Hungry journalists, myself included, chased after them, happy that something remotely interesting was happening. The fight over the Maine delegation, and the treatment of Paul more generally, has been one of the few bits of drama at a convention that has journalists debating whether it’s the most boring ever, or just the most boring in a couple of decades.

“Make sure you take this down,” said Christopher Brown, a Paul delegate from Caldwell, Texas. “The entire Ron Paul delegation came here to support the Republican Party and Mitt Romney. And when they didn’t seat our delegates, changed the rules, took away our votes, and didn’t give Ron Paul, a 12-term congressman that’s given his life to defending the Constitution and working for the Republican Party, when they didn’t give him a speaking role, that was it.”

In the days before the convention, Republican officials, arguing that the delegate-selection process was tainted, stripped half of Maine’s Paul delegates of their credentials and replaced them with loyal Romney supporters. That led Maine’s governor, Romney backer Paul LePage, to skip the convention in protest, and it turned the state into a symbol of Paul-ite anger at the Republican establishment. Then, on Tuesday, the RNC pushed through new rules designed to give the national party greater control over delegate selection in the future. The result was grassroots anger that goes beyond Paul supporters, enlivening a convention that’s otherwise most notable for its listlessness.

Originally, the Wednesday night walkout was supposed to be bigger, but according to Justin Carro, an alternate delegate from Alaska, the Paul camp urged restraint. “Ron Paul did say he wanted us to be polite and respectful and not boo Mitt Romney,” Carro said. “That we should be cautious in our actions and not destroy the progress that we have made. After discussion with the organization, the decision was made that you can do it if you want to,” but not everyone joined in.

It’s unlikely, though, that Paul fans are feeling any warmer toward Romney after Wednesday. The video tribute to Paul that the RNC offered in lieu of a speech played early in the evening, as delegates were just starting to wander onto the floor. Later, Paul’s son Rand spoke, but didn’t mention his father’s name; some of Paul’s supporters believe that the Romney camp forbade him to.

Thus the dissension is likely to continue on Thursday, the convention’s final day. At 6 p.m., an hour before the evening’s speeches are set to begin, a group of dissident Republicans are planning a press conference in the Forum to denounce the party’s recent rule changes. “It’s not necessarily just Ron Paul folks who are going to be there,” says Carro, one of the planners. “It’s also Santorum people, Gingrich people, Tea Party people who are not happy with these rule changes that have been shoved through. If that’s the type of corruption that we’re going to be faced with in the party, then what type of corruption are we going to be facing with Romney as president?”

It’s hard to say how much any of this will ultimately matter. The number of people who were open to voting for Romney, and now will not, is surely small, though in a tight election, small groups can make a difference. Carro, for one, is planning on going fishing on Election Day, saying, “I cannot support the Romulan empire.” Others expressed similar sentiments. Referring to the disenfranchised delegates, Susanne Nightingale, a Paul-ite from California, said, “No August vote, no November vote.”

What’s clear is that the Romney campaign could desperately use some of the Paul movement’s passion. “I’m very active in the Tea Party—I’ve spoken at a lot of Tea Party events,” Bill Greene, a Paul delegate from Georgia, told me on Tuesday. “And I hear from a lot of Tea Party people that there is almost zero enthusiasm for Mitt Romney. The only thing that’s motivating them at all right now is being against Obama. And just being against something means you lose.”