Rep. Ron Paul of Texes addresses the state's Republican convention.… (Ron T. Ennis, Fort Worth…)
DES MOINES — Rick Santorum narrowly won January's Iowa caucuses, and future Republican nominee Mitt Romney finished a close second. But when the state's delegates head to the Republican National Convention in August, most of them will be loyal backers of third-place finisher Ron Paul.
His haul of delegates from a weekend Iowa convention is part of the Texas congressman's quiet strategy to have a strong, vocal presence at the national gathering in Tampa, Fla. There's no mathematical way for Paul to derail Romney's nomination. But he and his supporters have taken advantage of the fact that, in states like Iowa, election day results don't determine actual delegates.
By working arcane rules at district, county and state gatherings around the country, his supporters have amassed an army of delegates who will try to ensure that his libertarian message about the economy, states' rights and a noninterventionist foreign policy is loudly proclaimed.
Paul's backers will also try to shape the party platform as they dare Republicans to take them for granted — much as social conservatives did years ago before they ascended in importance.
"We want to influence the direction of the party more than anything else," said Joel Kurtinitis, who was Paul's state director in Iowa until the congressman effectively ended his presidential bid in May. He said efforts by followers of Paul, a 76-year-old who will retire when his current term ends, are about more than him or his son Rand, a senator from Kentucky.
"We're going to hold up our values and we're going to bring conservatism back to the mainline of the Republican Party," Kurtinitis said.
But others say the move by the Iowa GOP is a black eye for the state's first-in-the-nation voting status and for Romney.
"Embarrassment is the word that comes to my mind," said Jamie Johnson, who served as Santorum's state coalitions director in Iowa. The former Pennsylvania senator, who endorsed Romney after ending his presidential bid in April, appears to have a solitary Iowa delegate heading into the convention.
Paul's convention wishes are unclear. Many assume he wants a prime-time speaking slot or a presence in the platform for his views, but he has been less than specific. In an email to supporters this month, he said he expected to have about 200 delegates, and hundreds more who back his positions while bound to support Romney.
"While this total is not enough to win the nomination, it puts us in a tremendous position to grow our movement and shape the future of the GOP!" Paul wrote.
Paul will headline a rally in Tampa on Aug. 26, and his followers are planning a three-day "Paul Fest" before the convention.
Paul didn't win a single voting contest outright, and he stopped actively campaigning in May. But he and his fiercely loyal followers long recognized an opening in the nomination process: While the campaigns and news media often suggest delegates are chosen on primary and caucus days, the reality is that sometimes they aren't.
Iowa was a prime example of a state where delegates are free to vote their conscience. The state has 28 delegates; three of the slots are reserved for the state party chairman and Iowa's two Republican National Committee members. Two of the three are Paul loyalists.
The remaining 25 were elected at the state GOP convention over the weekend. Of those, 21 were Paul backers, who won their spots because of his supporters' success in flooding state and local party gatherings to nominate delegates, for which they then fought vocally and at times angrily.
"I always say they didn't do anything wrong," said Craig Robinson, a founder of the Iowa Republican website. "Look, when everyone else was focused on winning other states — Romney, Santorum, [Newt] Gingrich — no one really except for the Paul campaign had roots back in Iowa who continued to work this process."
Paul supporters have engaged in similar efforts across the country. They also control state delegations from Nevada, Maine and Minnesota. Their efforts have at times erupted into clashes that led to arrests and party resignations. One of Romney's sons was booed off the stage at a party gathering in Arizona. Paul's campaign has pleaded for civility, but it remains unclear what the delegates will do in Tampa.
"Where their leverage is going to be is in how smoothly the convention plays out. They hold the wild card. They can delay events taking place in Tampa with parliamentary procedure," said Josh Putnam, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has studied political conventions.
He said it would be a mistake to assume the Paul delegates are monolithic. Some are focused on long-term goals of remaking the GOP, but others are focused on creating instant change, such as trying to block Romney's nomination.
"Romney's going to be the nominee," Putnam said. "It's just a question of how much of a headache are these folks going to make for Romney or the RNC."