Tampa, Fla.— For J. W. Martin, a lanky 25-year-old Virginian, the convention began the moment he stepped onto a Boeing 757 at Dulles International Airport late Saturday afternoon. Wearing a sky-blue Ron Paul shirt, Martin made his way to his coach seat, passing several Paul supporters in the cramped aisle. One gray-haired man wearing a white cowboy hat beamed at Martin and pointed to his own Ron Paul T-shirt. So did Adam Ward, a 31-year-old carpenter from Lancaster, Ohio, who struck up a conversation with his fellow traveler. They were all heading to Tampa, and boy, were they excited.
Ward coincidentally sat next to James Pethokoukis, a writer at the American Enterprise Institute, as the plane soared over the southern states. He and Pethokoukis talked politics for most of the flight, debating monetary policy and the state of the Republican party. For Ward, the discussion was an apt beginning to the coming week. He didn’t have a ticket to get into the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and he didn’t have an invitation to the swanky GOP parties downtown. But he had time, and a keen interest in sharing his point of view.
“I just want to let the Republican establishment know that we are not going away,” Ward told me later. “We have been showing up for the past five years for Ron Paul, and we are going to keep showing up.” Since Paul, a 77-year-old Texas congressman, will be retiring later this year, the future of the “liberty movement,” as Ward calls it, is entering a period of transition. “But if there are boots on the ground,” Ward said, pointing to his own boots, “then we can get the message out.”
After the United Airlines flight landed, a group of Paul supporters held an impromptu huddle near the gate. Ward and his friend Gary Fetherolf exchanged numbers with a swelling crowd of Paul backers. And they made sure to shake hands with Martin, the youngest of the lot. To many of the older Paul supporters, Martin represents the future. He traveled alone to the Sunshine State, but with real power: He is an elected delegate to the Republican National Convention.
“I started getting involved in Republican politics back in Marion, Virginia, where I work at the NASCAR speedway,” Martin said, as we strolled toward baggage claim. “I was one of three Paul delegates to sweep the convention in Virginia’s ninth congressional district. That was really an unexpected win but it’s part of this growing movement across the country. I’m here to help build it for the long term.”
On Sunday morning, after a few hours of sleep, Martin, Ward, and the rest of the Paul crew gathered at the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida. In many ways, the rally — which was attended by thousands of Paul supporters — was both a swan song for the retiring congressman and a revival for a presidential campaign that had all but shuttered months ago. The event did not begin until noon, but by 9 a.m. hundreds of Paul people were lined up under the palm trees, holding signs and chanting. “President Paul!” they yelled, “President Paul!”
Feelings about the rally, which was Paul’s only public event of the week, were mixed. “He’s really our last chance,” said Klaus Lindner, a 62-year-old retired architect from Nebraska. As Lindner gazed somewhat wistfully at the growing crowd, he saw scores of college students. “I don’t know what’s next,” he said. “Hopefully his son, Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, will continue to have an influence. And Paul is retiring — he’s not passing away. But to me, this is our real convention, to celebrate what this movement and man have accomplished.”
Rand Paul is a controversial subject in Paul World. Elected in 2010, Paul has been a force in the Senate, but his endorsement of Romney earlier this year irritated many Ron Paul activists, who hoped the senator would use his platform to push harder for his father’s campaign into the summer. Brett Lindell, a Paul supporter, says Rand is respected within the Ron Paul community, but his endorsement puts him more with the “establishment” than the Ron Paul wing. “Look, Ron Paul always talks about building coalitions, and I think Rand is doing that,” Lindell said. “But he has raised some eyebrows.”
Rebecca Harris, a 29-year-old mother from Tallahassee, was more upbeat about the future of the movement she became interested in four years ago. “This is about Ron Paul, but there are so many people coming up behind him, like Justin Amash,” she said, referring to a freshman congressman from Michigan whose views mirror Paul’s. “So, yes, this is kind of a last hurrah, but it’s a last hurrah for Ron Paul, not his ideas. You’ve got people like me, who were never interested in politics, now working their way into local Republican parties.”
Still, as with Ward and countless others who came to Tampa without any official GOP ties, many at the Sun Dome expressed frustration, and sometimes anger, with the Republican party for not embracing the “liberty movement” and its principles. From the moment they set foot in Florida, numerous Paul delegates felt unwelcome and shut out from the process. “I don’t care for Romney or his machine,” said Greg Tisdale, a Tampa resident, as he waited to enter the Sun Dome. “They are not doing much to really bring Ron Paul into the convention.”
According to a Politico report, that is true — to an extent. Last Thursday, before the convention opened, the Republican National Committee “invalidated Paul delegates elected in Maine based on irregularities at the state convention.” This move, in effect, stopped Paul from getting nominated on the convention floor because of his dwindling number of delegates, at least delegates officially counted by Republican leaders. This move infuriated many Paul supporters and was a frequent topic of discussion at the Sun Dome, where Paul volunteers argued that the GOP was once again playing political games.
But Paul himself, in a recent interview with CNBC, said that his campaign has actually succeeded in getting its views into the Republican platform, which he considers a major accomplishment. Romney operatives may be scurrying to prevent any Paul-inspired floor fights, but the GOP approved a gold-standard commission and an audit of the Federal Reserve as planks in its platform. “It’s a reflection of the effort we’ve had educating people about the return to gold,” Paul told the network.
And though convention staffers worked to quell any potential Paul rebellion, Politico reports that Romney’s campaign has repeatedly reached out to Paul’s advisers, making sure they felt included in the party and festivities. “It’s a marked contrast from four years ago, when party leaders for all intents and purposes froze out Paul completely,” wrote James Hohmann.
On Tuesday night, for example, Romney’s campaign will play a video tribute to Paul. “We look forward to showing a short film about Ron Paul,” Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said on a Friday conference call. “Several of his colleagues will give testimony to his principles and his dedication to America.” And Senator Paul was scheduled to speak on Monday, before the entire day was cancelled because of Isaac, an approaching storm.
By the time Paul took the stage late Sunday after an introduction from Senator Paul, the seats at the Sun Dome were near capacity. After listening to a series of Paul-supporting speakers, the crowd was more than ready to hear its hero, who hunched over the metallic, futuristic podium, looking every bit a septuagenarian. His message was optimistic, and chants of “Paul 2016!” filled the air. But the event celebrated the closing of an era. Paul has been a national libertarian leader for the past three decades, and a critical figure in presidential politics since 2007. The crowd seemed eager for his movement to push forward, but no one agreed on the best path.
Sitting in the back, at a table in the press pen watching it all was Brian Doherty, a writer for Reason magazine and a Paul biographer. “It’s a confusing time for the movement,” he said. “A lot of people here feel alienated; they feel like they played the GOP game, and became delegates, only to see the rules changed at the last minute. When Paul began to run again last year, there were high expectations, and I think many supporters were disappointed that it’s ending like this,” with the movement a “faction of the party, not dominating it.”
Nevertheless, Doherty — who first saw Paul speak in 1988 when he was running the libertarian student group at the University of Florida — says there is much for libertarians to be happy about in Tampa. “Paul is not speaking at the actual convention, but this is a long game, and what he has fought for will continue to be important,” he said. “The open question is what’s next, and I don’t think the answer right now is clear.”
At least one Paul loyalist is hoping for a repeat run. “It’s true, Ron will be 80 in ’16,” economist Walter Block told the Sun Dome crowd. “But it’s a young 80.” At that, the Paulites roared.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.