Supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are gathered in Tampa, Fla., for a… (Robert F. Bukaty / Associated…)
TAMPA, Fla. — The first day of Paul Festival, a three-day celebration of Ron Paul and the movement he led, kicked off Friday with a sparsely attended gathering in the cavernous hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Organizers had initially hoped 40,000 would attend the three-day event, but are now hoping for 5,000, attributing the smaller numbers to Paul throwing his own rally on Sunday and the possibility of inclement weather.
On Friday afternoon, hundreds listened to bands and speakers, and meandered through an exhibition hall that featured not only vendors hawking Paul gear and gold, but also booths for the John Birch Society, Scientology and a three-day “Ron Paul Cruise 2013” to the Bahamas.
Some attendees hoped that Paul could still claim the nomination, but the RNC made delegation seating decisions that effectively mean Paul does not have enough state support to have his name placed in contention at the party convention that begins here Monday.
“It’s early, it’s Friday and I believe that I’m part of history. I don’t know what will happen but I believe something does happen that will be significant,” said Jaime Garsbrough, 60, a mushroom farmer from Smith River, Calif. “Even though it looks bleak, American loves an underdog, and you can’t get more underdog than Ron Paul.”
Others say Paul’s cause -- strict interpretation of the Constitution that would fundamentally shrink government and the nation’s overseas entanglements -- was about more than one man, though they said they were disappointed that Paul would not be the GOP nominee.
“I don’t think the movement is dependent on Ron Paul,” said Vinko Grskovic of Fairlawn, N.J., as he held his 4-year-old son Evan in his arms. The little boy clutched a balloon that said “Peace. Sound Money,” with Paul's visage. “The natural desire of human beings is liberty.”
The first day of the festival occurred the same day the RNC laid the groundwork to change its rules in a maneuver that would effectively make it harder for a Paul-type candidate in future elections. A key committee voted to raise the number of states required to put a name in contention from five to eight, and to allow campaigns to select state delegates. The latter is a response to Paul’s campaign this year, which in some states was successful in working local and state party rules so their delegates are appearing in Tampa despite other candidates’ winning the states’ voting contests.
Some Paul loyalists said the rule changes were simply another example of how the GOP no longer represents its constituents. They also pointed at the party allowing Paul’s son Rand, a senator from Kentucky who has endorsed Mitt Romney, to speak, while denying Paul a speaking slot despite the 77-year-old's impending retirement after decades, and the imprint he has left on the party.
“I’m here because over the past couple months, for the first time I actually started to care about what happens to our country. I looked at the left and the right, and more and more each day, they seem the same,” said Anthony James, 19, of Daytona Beach. “No matter what happens on the convention floor, it doesn’t matter if we win or lose, because Ron Paul has already won the future.”
But others relished the idea that their grass-roots work prompted the party to change its rules, and predicted that they would find ways in future contests to keep on working the system.
“I’m proud we forced them to do that,” said Bryan Siemon, a festival organizer from Harrisburg. But he added that their cause was not about the Republican Party. “Most of us are interested in changing the system -- not just the party, but the whole system.”
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