Shirley Smith of Liberty stood in the lobby of the Augusta Civic Center on Sunday afternoon, watching in dismay as the wheels came off the Maine Republican State Convention.
“I’ve been coming to these conventions since I don’t remember,” said Smith, a member of the GOP state committee and a supporter of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “And I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Call it a grass-roots insurrection by Mainers infatuated with Ron Paul, the stubborn congressman from Texas who refuses to step aside in his own quixotic quest for the White House.
Or call it a parliamentary nightmare, which it clearly became as the points of order, suspensions of the rules, credentials challenges and countless other monkey wrenches turned this normally well-oiled political machine into so much rubble.
But whatever it was, one question loomed as the two-day convention ended in the same chaos with which it began:
Who’s in charge of Maine’s Republican Party?
The easy answer, at least before last weekend, was Charlie Webster, the combative state party chairman who tried mightily — and ultimately failed — to blunt the wave of Paul supporters who pulled the convention right out from under the GOP establishment.
By the time the smoke cleared late Sunday, the Paulites had elected their own convention chair and secretary.
They’d grabbed 20 of Maine’s 24 delegate seats at the national convention in Tampa this August — this after Webster himself announced in February that Romney was the Maine GOP’s choice to take on President Obama this fall.
According to unconfirmed reports, the Paul crowd even won a majority of the seats on the Republican State Committee, putting them in full control of Maine’s GOP apparatus — or at least what’s left of it.
Which brings us back to that leadership question.
Could this be the beginning of the end for Webster, who’s become a lightning rod for controversy since he led the GOP to dominance of the Maine Legislature in 2010?
Maybe … and maybe not.
As the battle between the Paul and Romney camps raged around him Sunday, Webster noted that he was elected to a two-year term in December.
What’s more, he said, it will take a two-thirds majority of the state committee to give him the boot — and before they can do that, they’ll have to show cause.
“I don’t see anything bad here,” Webster said even as the convention, chaired by Paul supporter Brent Tweed of North Berwick, fell further and further behind schedule.
That said, Webster added, “I think it’s an example of what happens if you don’t have a plan.”
Except the Paul crowd did have a plan:
Step 1 — Outnumber the opposition.
Steps 2, 3 and 4 — repeat Step 1.
“It didn’t have to come to this, I don’t think,” observed Matt McDonald, an evangelical minister from Belfast who helped lead the Paul offensive and landed one of Maine’s 15 at-large seats at the national convention in Tampa.
It all goes back to last winter, McDonald said, when Webster and other state party officials at first refused to accept the results of local presidential straw polls in Washington, Hancock and Waldo counties because they took place after the party’s deadline.
“We begged Charlie (Webster),” McDonald recalled. “We went to meetings and they wouldn’t recognize us. They told us, ‘You’re not on the state committee, so you don’t have a voice.’ “
Webster & Company eventually gave in on the local caucus results. But according to McDonald, it was too late.
“Out of that,” he said, “the seeds of the revolution, or however you want to say it, were planted.”
And now, as those seeds sprouted in May, they choked out much of what normally fills up a state convention agenda.
Take, for example, the six Republican candidates vying for the nomination to succeed the outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe.
In the end, Sunday afternoon’s appearances by each candidate before the full convention — normally a highlight of these affairs — never happened. Instead, the candidates fanned out — to the lobby steps, to empty meeting rooms — and preached primarily to their own choirs.
Even as his competitors scattered, Attorney General William Schneider said he still planned to pitch his Senate candidacy from the main stage in front of the entire convention.
Yet moments later, Schneider could only issue a statement to the media expressing his disappointment that this onetime opportunity to introduce himself to a statewide audience was “lost to the chaos of the convention.”
And so it went. As the hours ticked away and the hecklers lambasted this motion or challenged that vote, party veterans scratched their heads and wondered how Maine’s GOP got itself into this mess — and where it goes from here.
“It’s totally fractured,” observed party veteran Charles Cragin, who was supposed to serve as convention chairman before Tweed beat him by a mere four votes.
Cragin said he fully expects the newcomers, their seats at the national convention now secure, will next set their sights on state party Chairman Webster.
“They’ll kick him out,” Cragin said. “If they have the votes on the state committee, I think Charlie would be very hard pressed to survive that sort of situation. Obviously, that’s what they’re trying to do.”
But Cragin, like several other old-timers, also worried that the Paul supporters will stick around only as long as their guy occupies the national stage.
“Will the fervor continue? Will they actually run the party?” he asked. “Will they actually go out and solicit the money that’s necessary to elect members of the state Legislature?”
They just might. As the convention’s 6 p.m. closing time approached and Webster and others warned that it would cost the party precious cash to run late, a Paul supporter stepped forward and urged his colleagues to each contribute $10 to help keep the lights on.
Seconds later, a Romney supporter stepped up to the microphone and urged his side to do the same.
Outside near the snack bar, Barry Bixby of Hebron sipped a hot coffee and marveled that a political convention — his first — could be so downright divisive.
Just a guess, but might he be a Ron Paul supporter?
“But right now I’m thinking Gandhi,” he said. “Keep the peace.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: