TAMPA, Fla. — Ron Paul supporters staged a loud and bitter revolt at the Republican convention Tuesday, undercutting what GOP officials hoped would be a unifying moment as they officially made Mitt Romney their nominee.
At the heart of the conflict was a decision by RNC officials to change the rules regarding primaries. The intention was to neutralize Paul backers’ tactic of taking over delegates won by other candidates by controlling otherwise sleepy state conventions and caucuses. In a related fight, the RNC’s decision not to seat the delegation of Paul supporters from Maine who were chosen in such a fashion sparked an ugly standoff on the convention floor.
Simmering tensions finally boiled over as Paul supporters screamed, “point of order” in unison as the RNC announced the approval of a seating process that excluded Paul’s Maine delegation. Romney supporters tried in vain to drown them out with chants of “USA!” but the boos continued unabated.
“Weak candidate! Weeeaaak!” a lone Paul supporter shouted from the stands.
Later when Speaker John Boehner called a voice vote on the new rules process, Paul supporters’ “nays” loudly bested the “ayes.” Boehner nonetheless sided with the ayes, provoking the crowd’s ire yet again.
“It was a hostile motion by the RNC and to some extent the Romney campaign,” Cody Morgan, one of the ousted Paul delegates from Maine, told TPM. He accused Romney supporters of trying to call the sergeant at arms to remove “boisterous” Paul delegates during their shouting match.
The rules fight hung over the convention like smog as state after state announced their delegates’ votes en route to formally nominating Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan. A number of states announced a portion of their votes for Paul — who pointedly declined to endorse Romney — but the convention chair repeated only Romney’s vote total in each case, prompting the Paul camp to shout the number themselves afterward.
What the effects of the RNC’s failure to bring Paul’s fiercely loyal supporters in from the cold will be are unclear. A number of Paul delegates blustered that Republicans had threatened any chance of beating Obama, but the relationship between his core supporters and the mainstream party, despite entreaties by Romney and other top Republicans, has never been close.
“When they look to us for votes they’ll have a hard time,” Luis LaRotta, a Texas Ron Paul delegate, told TPM.
“There’s no way I can unify with them after they’ve done this,” Kevin Pierce, another Paul delegate from Maine, told TPM. He admitted that there was only a “small chance” Romney could have won him over to begin with.
Former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour told TPM that Paul’s impact was exaggerated somewhat by the large number of vocal supporters who attended as guests and not delegates. He said the relevant committee overwhelmingly approved its rule changes in a roll call vote at a separate meeting.
Barbour admitted, jokingly, the ruckus could undercut the GOP’s unified image. “Probably CNN will find a way,” he deadpanned.
Others outside of Paul’s orbit were less sanguine about the Paul camp’s effect on the convention. John Whitmer, a former regional coordinator for Rick Perry in Kansas now supporting Romney, had trouble understanding why the RNC didn’t do more to quiet the “Paul-niks,” say by offering Paul a speaking slot instead of a short tribute video.
“Ron Paul is a distraction and we need to focus,” he said. “I don’t want him to be another Ross Perot.”
Adding fuel to the fire, a number of tea party leaders outside the Paul movement sided with his demands, warning that the rule changes were a power grab from state and local parties. Sarah Palin labeled the move a “direct attack on grassroots activists by the GOP establishment” in a Facebook post.
Celeste Gamache, a candidate for the Colorado House who favored Herman Cain and Rick Santorum in the primaries, suggested that the “horrible” rules were far more damaging to the party than the Paul camp’s reaction.
“Disagreements are healthy,” she said. “Things like this make us look bad because the process doesn’t look fair.”
This post has been updated.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.