TAMPA, Florida — Ron Paul supporters are pondering what next for the libertarian cause and complaining bitterly of betrayal by a party establishment about to crown Mitt Romney the Republican presidential nominee.
Paul lit a fuse under the libertarian wing of the Republican Party during the primary season, amassing the third largest number of delegates as he united legions of young supporters behind his anti-tax, anti-war message.
The surge in popularity for the movement has coincided with US weariness at expensive overseas wars and seething anger at the 2008 financial crisis that made fiscal discipline more appealing to voters.
Paul, a 77-year-old Texas congressman, retires in January, leaving the causes of personal liberty and small government without their most effective Washington champion just as they appear to be gaining traction.
“If it’s not over it’s not the end. As long as we have breath we can fight for freedom and liberty,” self-proclaimed Minister of Truth, Derrick Grayson, told Paul supporters before launching into his music gig.
But despite vows to keep up the struggle, many at the three-day Paul event at the Florida State Fairgrounds expressed concern for the future without their charismatic figurehead and wondered who, if anyone, might replace him.
“The whole movement is waiting for the answer to that question,” 40-year-old Tampa resident Mike Franklin told AFP, a massive .50 caliber bullet dangling from his neck.
“I just feel if Ron Paul isn’t our president, everyone is just going to break up and just be controlled by whoever’s in charge,” said his wife Janae.
A pair of golden flip-flops with pictures of Romney glued to them — “That’s what he is, a flip-flopper” — hung accusingly from her belt.
Her “if” belied the hope diehard Paul supporters clung to that some kind of miracle could still see him contest for the nomination on the floor of the convention, which runs Monday through Thursday in Tampa, Florida.
“Regardless of you media people, my brother could be nominated on the floor of the Republican Party if there are six states willing to stick their neck out, telling the Republican hierarchy to take a long walk off a short pier,” insisted Ron Paul’s younger brother Wayne.
“They’ve absolutely tried to crush the movement in every way shape and form,” he told AFP, voicing the suspicions of many that the Republican National Convention is seeking to shut the veteran Texas congressman out.
Paul is set to hold a valedictory rally at the University of South Florida on Sunday but will not address the convention.
Romney will be formally anointed as President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger in the November 6 election on Thursday after days of raucous speeches by party grandees and rising stars.
Anxious not to let Paul derail proceedings, the RNC is showing a tribute video on Tuesday night and scheduled his son Rand to address the gathering on Monday — although that speech is now in doubt as Tropical Storm Isaac forced the cancelation of first day events.
Elected as a Kentucky senator in 2010 as part of the Tea Party surge, Rand Paul describes himself as a constitutional conservative and a libertarian and would be the most logical person to take up the baton from his father.
But according to Janae Franklin, he has alienated many in the movement. “After Rand endorsed Mitt Romney most of the party lost interest in him,” she said.
Paul supporters have nothing but scorn for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and multimillionaire businessman who they say shares none of their beliefs.
Describing his nomination as a “scam,” Mike Franklin said it was “stupid to expect that this jackass is going to beat Obama.”
He saw more similarities than differences between the presidential rivals.
“They are both backed by the big banks, both backed by Goldman Sachs, both candidates went to Harvard.”
“The only difference is that with Romney it might take a year more than it will take our current president to put this economy in the toilet,” said Wayne Paul, before offering a glimmer of hope to libertarians.
“My brother will retire as a congressman in January, but he is not going to retire from talking about the message of freedom and liberty. He won’t ever quit that, it’s too engrained in him.”
As Grayson launched into a version of Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down” with the name Paul entered in fitting places, supporters at the adjoining hall perused Paul memorabilia, from T-shirts and balloons to DVDs and shot glasses.
One stall sold playing cards with queens and jacks replaced by ladies and gentlemen, and kings by patriots.
Melina Brajovic, a Pittsburgh resident of Serbian origin, wore a patriot costume complete with triangular hat and velvet cloak.
“I know that liberty is attractive, the truth is attractive. I don’t think it will ever end,” she said.
[Image via Flickr user nealaus, Creative Commons licensed]