TAMPA, FLA. — Ron Paul marked the end of his presidential ambitions at a raucous rally Sunday night with a message to the Republican establishment. To those who believe that his impending retirement from Congress marks the end of the movement he inspired, he scoffed: "Don't they only wish!"
Paul told thousands of supporters at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome that his followers' pursuit of basic liberty and strict adherence to the Constitution was stronger than ever.
"It's coming about, not only because I believe we're right on the issues, but what is coming out right now is proof positive that their philosophy of government -- foreign policy, monetary policy or economic policy -- is failing and they need to do something different," Paul said.
The crowd responded by chanting, "President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!"
The gathering was a watershed event for Paul, 77, who is not seeking reelection after more than two decades of representing Texas in the U.S. House.
His third presidential bid did not win a single state. But after years of being scorned for his obsession with monetary policy and spending, Paul has seen some of his ideas become part of mainstream GOP thought, such as auditing the Federal Reserve and sharply reducing the national debt.
And his supporters will be a force at the Republican National Convention, now scheduled to start Tuesday. Despite his lack of electoral success, his followers worked obscure state and local party rules to send hundreds of supporters to the convention.
Paul doesn't have the delegate numbers to derail Mitt Romney's nomination, and he has urged his supporters to behave civilly, but how they will act remains uncertain, with some convinced that he can still become the GOP nominee.
"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., while attending the separate three-day Paul Festival here.
"Even though it looks bleak, America loves an underdog, and you can't get more underdog than Ron Paul."
The passion of Paul's followers forced Republican leaders to walk a careful line -- being respectful of the Texas congressman while using the rule-making process to in effect stop his name from being placed in contention, and making it harder for future grass-roots candidates.
Paul's anger at their moves was evident. "They've learned how to bend the rules, break the rules, and now they want to rewrite the rules," he said.
He said their actions were futile for two reasons -- because they so far overstepped the bounds by concentrating decision-making in the hands of a few that others are joining Paul's cause, and because his supporters' place in the party is inevitable.
"We'll get into the tent, believe me, because we will become the tent eventually," he said.
Paul turned down an invitation to speak at the convention because he refused to endorse Romney and allow Romney's campaign to vet his speech.
"It wouldn't be my speech," Paul told the New York Times. "That would undo everything I've done in the last 30 years. I don't fully endorse him for president."
The convention plans to show a video tribute to Paul on Wednesday night, and his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, will speak then.
Paul joked that he was excited to receive a call from convention organizers giving him an hour to say anything he liked -- "tomorrow night." Monday's events were canceled because of Tropical Storm Isaac.
Paul spoke for an hour, offering a history lesson on where he believed the nation faltered in its economic and military policy.
He called for the legalization of all drugs, offered words of support for WikiLeaks case figures Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, and urged an end to all wars.
He warned of impending fascism because of the power of big business, big banks and big government. He warned against Americans relying on the government for their needs, comparing it to animals depending on their owners for shelter and food before they are led to slaughter.
But it wasn't all dark talk of the nation's perils. Before Paul spoke, his wife, Carol, introduced their five children and many of their grandchildren. When Rand Paul took the microphone, the crowd began chanting "Paul '16! Paul '16!"
He said that the Republican establishment thought young people were drawn to his father "because he's cool. Well, I'm his kid. I can tell you, he isn't cool. But the ideas of liberty are pretty cool."
Ron Paul's parting message to his followers was that they must continue to educate themselves so that they could further the movement.
"You may run for office, you may organize, who knows what it will be," he said. "But the obligation is there. You have an obligation to do your best to change this because it's in your interest, your families' interest and the interest of our country."