AUGUSTA – Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul commandeered the Maine Republican Party convention Saturday as part of a multi-state strategy designed to give him a voice at the national GOP convention in Tampa, Fla.
Despite pre-emptive efforts by state party Chairman Charlie Webster, Paul’s highly organized volunteers and supporters took over the proceedings at the Augusta Civic Center. Using preprinted ballots and floor generals who flashed large signs reminding backers which candidates to support, the Paul campaign bested supporters of Mitt Romney, the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Paul’s backers took control of key parliamentary positions and the convention agenda. The effort was part of the Paul campaign’s national effort to overtake Republican state conventions and win enough state delegates to send Paul to the national convention.
National pundits believe Paul, a proselytizer of free-market economics and libertarianism who hasn’t won a single state primary, has a slim chance of forcing a brokered convention in Tampa to challenge Romney. However, Paul’s supporters in Maine said sending enough delegates to the event will force the Republican National Committee to give him a prominent speaking role to amplify his message.
“Our feeling is that we think it’s important to have our voice heard,” said state Rep. Aaron Libby, R-North Waterboro, a Paul supporter. “This election is far too important. We believe Ron Paul is different from all the other candidates, and he’s different in ways that are vital to the well-being of this country.”
The extent of the takeover had yet to be determined, even after a long day of jockeying for position. Extensive procedural delays pushed the election of 15 state delegates well into the evening.
Maine sends 24 delegates to the national convention. Fifteen at-large delegates are elected, as well as three from each congressional district. The state committee chairman, chairwoman and the party chairman also serve as delegates.
The voting was scheduled to take place Saturday afternoon, but the election of parliamentary officers tossed the entire event into chaos, as Paul and Romney delegates exchanged procedural maneuvers.
“What you saw here today was an evenly divided convention and two sides that were attempting to protect the integrity of the delegation selection process,” said Joshua Tardy, the former House Republican minority leader and a Romney supporter. “The Romney and the Paul people were trying to find solutions, but it takes time.”
The delays also forced the party to postpone adoption of its platform.
Feeding into the day’s wrangling was a sense among some Paul supporters that the Romney side was up to no good — a suspicion planted in February when state GOP leaders initially excluded some county results from a presidential preference poll.
State party chairman Webster ultimately ruled that the votes should be counted, but not before suffering pointed criticism at the hands of Paul supporters. Webster fought back, calling Paul supporters “wingnuts.”
The comment, and a pre-emptive email Webster sent to party members last week warning of the Paul convention insurrection, had the Paul campaign in a celebratory mood after securing the convention chairman and secretary seats.
“We’re all registered Republicans here,” said Matthew McDonald of Belfast, a Paul supporter. “But Chairman Webster called Ron Paul supporters ‘wingnuts,’ he saw us as a fringe minority. Now we hold the power of the convention.”
On Saturday, tweets from Paul supporters warned of “shenanigans” and phony ballots. In one instance, the Paul campaign’s preprinted ballot had been photocopied but replaced with the names of Romney delegate candidates.
The long delays also elevated tensions on the floor and frustrated some of the congressional candidates, who were forced to scale back their speeches because of the condensed schedule.
State Sen. Deborah Plowman, R-Hampden, a U.S. Senate candidate scheduled to speak today, lamented the reduced time on stage.
“The convention is designed to showcase your congressional candidates,” said Plowman. “That time has been cut down significantly.”
Kathie Summers-Grice, campaign manager for state Sen. Kevin Raye, a 2nd District congressional candidate, said the campaign put a lot of time and effort into the convention and the speeches.
“All of that planning pretty much went away in the blink of an eye,” Summers-Grice said.
Paul supporters, however, were upbeat at the prospect of winning state delegates.
The Paul campaign’s efforts mirrored those in nearly a dozen other states, where supporters gamed arcane convention rules to send their delegates to Tampa.
While some Republicans worried Saturday that the divisiveness would hurt Romney, the likely presidential nominee, others said the party would unite in the end.
“The idea is to make our presence felt today and everything will be kumbaya on Sunday,” said Libby, a Paul supporter.
Tardy, a Romney backer, said the event was meaningful to Maine and the Paul campaign, but may not be significant nationally.
“The presidential nominee is going to be Romney, everyone knows that,” Tardy said. “Some people worry that this will make the party appear divided, but my guess is that after this is over Congressman Paul and Governor Romney will have a conversation before the national convention.”
He added, “I think the people here who care about this country would hope that they come to some type of resolution.”
State House Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on Sunday, May 6 to reflect that Rep. Aaron Libby is from North Waterboro, not North Waterford.