TAMPA, Fla. – After weeks of wrangling with national party leaders, members of Maine’s delegation to the Republican National Convention joined thousands of other Ron Paul devotees Sunday to celebrate the libertarian congressman and attack a GOP establishment they view as hostile to change.

More than two dozen people spoke or performed during the “We Are the Future” rally organized by the Paul campaign on the eve of a convention to nominate Mitt Romney. But some of the loudest cheers — as well as several standing ovations — went to a 21-year-old University of Southern Maine student.

A Paul supporter and one of Maine’s 20 contested delegates to the convention, Ashley Ryan urged the fired-up crowd gathered inside the cavernous University of South Florida Sun Dome to “keep fighting” and stay engaged in politics despite frustrations.

“I say that no matter what happens, we all make a commitment right now to get involved and stay involved at the local level,” said Ryan, who later this week will become the country’s youngest state Republican national committeewoman. “What we did in my home state of Maine is nothing short of incredible.”

What Maine’s Paul supporters did was win control of the state GOP convention in May by a slim margin and then elect 20 declared Paul backers to the 24-person slate of Maine representatives at the Republican National Convention.

The Paul camp’s takeover of the state convention was controversial, however. And late last week, the Republican National Committee voted to replace 10 of the 20 Paul delegates with new delegates likely to support Romney after determining the convention was marred by illegal votes and parliamentary violations. Maine was one of several states where Paul delegates were challenged with the RNC.

During his closing remarks at Sunday’s rally, Paul alluded to the challenges faced by the delegates in various states. But in a speech that was more sharply critical of his own party than of President Obama, Paul lashed out at party leaders for rule changes that he and others regard as a power grab by the national party at the expense of local and state committees.

“They have been bending the rules and breaking the rules and re-writing the rules for a long time, and that is what we need to stop from happening,” Paul said to boisterous cheers from the crowd.

Ryan was even more critical of the rule changes that affect how delegates are chosen by states and urged convention-goers to resist them on the floor.

“Regardless of who someone supports for the nomination, these rules destroy the integrity of the Republican Party,” Ryan said. “Our party will go from being a ‘big tent’ with many ideas to a small group at the mercy of a few political insiders. This is not what the Republican Party was founded on.”

Paul’s views have made him popular with libertarians and tea party members, and he hit on many of those controversial proposals of the “Ron Paul Revolution” during his nearly hour-long speech. He called for auditing and eventually abolishing the Federal Reserve, halting all military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, dramatically scaling back or eliminating federal regulation of the financial sector and legalizing drugs.

Republican leaders — including Romney — have since embraced Paul’s call for auditing the Federal Reserve, incorporating it and other positions pushed by the Texas congressman into the GOP platform. But RNC officials — apparently wary of disruptions by Paul supporters during the made-for-TV Romney nomination process — have made sure to keep Paul’s role in the convention to a minimum.

Judging by the angry rhetoric directed at the Republican establishment, the small but vocal and well-organized “Ron Paul army” feels as if they and their candidate have been badly mistreated by the larger party. Over and over again, speakers insisted that Paul and his constitutionalist supporters are the true conservatives while the mainstream GOP has lost its way.

“Simply hating the other side is not a political ideology,” said Jack Hunter, the Paul campaign’s official blogger. “It is partisanship, it is childish and it is useless.”

As a result of the challenges filed against Maine and other states, Paul has failed to win a plurality of delegates in five states that would trigger an automatic nomination and earn him a prime-time speaking slot during the convention. But because of that battle, Maine’s delegation received loud applause from the crowd Sunday every time it was mentioned, as did Gov. Paul LePage, who opted to skip the national convention due to the flap over the delegates.

Some of Maine’s Paul supporters were easily identifiable Sunday by their Paul “Maine 2012″ hats as they gathered in special VIP sections reserved for delegates. Many of those from Maine who lost their seats as delegates or alternates will still be able to attend the convention thanks to Iowa’s delegation, which has listed them as guests.

But the frustration and anger were still there.

“We would like to get back to a limited, constitutional government,” said Bryan Daugherty, a longtime Republican from the Bangor area who was one of the 10 Paul supporters to retain his delegate seat. “All of the shenanigans pulled here is discouraging because we are part of the Republican Party.”

John Logan Jones, one of the 10 Maine delegates who lost his seat at the convention, was nonetheless thrilled about Sunday’s rally. A candidate for the Maine House this year, Jones said the experience has made him more intent on staying involved in state politics.

“I wear it as a badge of honor that they tossed me out because I am part of this change they are trying to resist,” said Jones, who in addition to his Paul hat was wearing a button of Romney that read: “Not my candidate.”

Although the GOP convention officially begins Monday, planners have postponed the first day’s events due to the threat posed by Tropical Storm Isaac. 

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC