TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Thousands of die-hard Ron Paul supporters paid no heed to Tropical Storm Isaac on Sunday and held a marathon rally in Tampa to celebrate the 77-year-old congressman, who gave a farewell speech of more than an hour about his libertarian views.
As Republican National Committee officials scrambled to adjust the storm-shortened schedule for this week’s convention to nominate Mitt Romney for president, Paul followers gathered across town at the University of Southern Florida’s Sun Dome.
Paul, who is retiring from Congress this year after a colorful career and three failed White House runs, looked embarrassed as he got a prolonged standing ovation from an ear-splitting crowd as music thumped “Ron Paul, Ron Paul” in the background.
He praised his supporters for backing his vision of reduced government and increased personal liberties and urged them to continue the movement even now that his presidential bid had ended.
“The convention is very important this week ...(But) there’s something even more important than all that and that is the cause that we’re leading, the cause for liberty and the attention that we’re getting right now,” said the Texas congressman.
In his last speech of the long campaign season, Paul gave a rambling, 65-minute discourse that jumped from one topic to another and made reference to novels and history. But the crowd stayed engaged, chanting “President Paul, President Paul” and cheering his belief government should be cut.
Filling seats up to the basketball arena’s rafters, the sign-waving crowd had already spent most of the five hours before Paul spoke listening to speakers bashing mainstream Republicans, the Federal Reserve and calling for an end to U.S. military involvement overseas.
A favored topic was getting rid of the Federal Reserve Bank. South Carolina state senator Tom Davis got the crowd revved up into a frenzy when he criticized the central bank chairman. “Ben Bernanke is a traitor and a dictator,” Davis said to roars from the crowd as they stood and stomped on the floor.
Paul told The New York Times this weekend that he was not speaking at the convention because he did not want to give Romney a full-fledged endorsement. His son Rand, a U.S. senator from Kentucky who is seen as the future of the “Ron Paul Revolution,” is speaking at the convention and has supported Romney.
Republican officials and the Romney campaign were worried that Paul’s often-rebellious supporters would stage an unlikely attempt to have him nominated at the convention, and distract attention from the party’s message of defeating President Barack Obama on November 6.
But Paul backers, a unique combination of conservatives, the young, retired members of the military and independents, have been placated in part by the party putting ideas like an audit of the Federal Reserve — something he has long supported — onto the party platform.
Nevertheless, Paul and several of the rally’s speakers Sunday afternoon blasted the national committee for changing rules to make it tougher for an outsider like him to get delegates to become a candidate with a realistic chance of advancing in the nominating process.
Paul failed to win any states in this year’s Republican primary and caucuses votes but gathered up to 200 delegates, enough to cause disruption at the convention.
Paul’s message of sharply reducing the role of government, scrapping the Federal Reserve and ending the U.S. military presence overseas resonated this election cycle more than in previous years. It was seen as attractive to conservatives and some disillusioned Democrats in times of a deep budget deficit and war weariness.
Paul joked about not being asked to speak at the convention.
“Today I was very excited. I got a call from the RNC,” he said. “They said they changed their mind. They were going to give me a whole hour and I could say anything I want — tomorrow night.”
He paused to let the crowd realize convention events had been canceled for Monday night because of Tropical Storm Isaac. Then he said: “Just kidding, just kidding.”
Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara