An energetic movement of idealistic young people seeks to make their candidate the Republican nominee for president. They aren't deterred by the fact that he has only managed to win about five percent of the vote and a dozen delegates in the primaries so far.
They have a plan for victory at the Republican National Convention, a plan that includes Oklahoma's May 3 Republican state convention as a crucial battle. The prospect has party officials worried.
Some of his overenthusiastic supporters have vandalized public property with graffiti and flooded online polls in support of their man. (Other supporters claim that his enemies are stenciling his name on bridge abutments to discredit him.)
Their habit of using search engines to find and flood every blog entry and Internet forum thread invoking their candidate's name led Oklahoma City blogger Charles G. Hill of dustbury.com to invent a code name for him: "Pon Farr," a Star Trek reference to the Vulcan mating season that aptly captures the nerdy passion of the candidate's followers.
Their zeal has earned them a plethora of nicknames from their detractors: Ronulans, Paulbots, Paultards. They call themselves the Ron Paul Revolution, but one thing you can't call them is a bunch of quitters.
The Texas Congressman and obstetrician is the original "Dr. No," often the lone vote against bills that he believes violate the limits that the Constitution places on the powers of the Federal Government. But it's his position against American military involvement in Iraq that seems to motivate much of his youthful support base.
Paul was the 1988 presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, but he is seeking the Republican nomination this year. His supporters believe they can compensate for his poor primary showing with superior organization.
Conventional wisdom says that Arizona Sen. John McCain has the Republican presidential nomination sewn up. CNN's delegate count puts McCain at more than 1300 delegates, more than enough for a majority on the first ballot at the convention. All of his rivals have suspended their campaigns.
Not since 1976, when Gov. Ronald Reagan nearly defeated incumbent Pres. Gerald Ford, has the nomination been in doubt when the convention was called to order. Traditionally, since nothing of substance has to be decided, congressional district and state conventions send longtime volunteers and faithful donors to the national convention as a reward for their service to the party.
These delegates are wined and dined by corporate sponsors. The convention program is designed mainly as an infomercial for the party, using free network airtime to spotlight the presidential nominee, candidates in key Senate races, and rising-star governors. Delegates get a chance to be up close and personal with the political and media celebrities they watch on Fox News.
I was a delegate in 2004, and it was great fun. But the actual business of the convention -- choosing nominees for president and vice president, voting on a platform, and establishing rules to govern the Republican Party for the next four years -- was treated as a mere formality.
But all that is grounded in tradition, and nothing in the party rules says those traditions have to be followed.
Here in Oklahoma, Paul won about 3% of the statewide primary vote. McCain finished first, winning statewide and in three congressional districts, entitling him to 32 convention delegates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the 1st and 2nd Districts; he gets six national delegates.
State law and state party rules bind delegates to vote for the choice of the primary voters on the first ballot, but they don't require that the delegates have to be supporters of the candidate to whom they're bound. If Huckabee releases his delegates before the convention, as expected, those delegates will be free to vote for whomever they will.
Paul's supporters have captured five of the 15 delegate seats that were filled at Oklahoma's congressional district conventions -- three belonging to McCain and two to Huckabee. They won seven of the 15 alternate positions -- six of McCain's and one of Huckabee's. They managed this by getting their people to the district conventions and working the voting system to their advantage.
They also managed it with a certain amount of stealth. At the 1st District convention in Tulsa on April 5, a dozen or so ran for delegate. In their speeches, they never mentioned their support for Ron Paul, and they stayed away from Paul's distinctive positions. In particular, there were no mentions of the war in Iraq. They tried to come across as enthusiastic young Reaganauts, emphasizing issues held in common with mainstream conservatives.
But an anonymous flyer outed them, based on a list of the Oklahoma Ron Paul meet-up group found on ronpaulexposed.blogspot.com.
And so the Ron Paul Revolution came away from the 1st District convention empty-handed. Long-time Republicans turned their people out and held a 60-40 advantage over the newcomers. This majority voted for the candidates they knew from years of party involvement.
Instant runoff voting--in use since the 2000 1st District Convention (at my encouragement)--ensured that whichever side held the majority would prevail.
I oversaw the tallying of the votes, in which many of the Paul people participated. While they were disappointed in the outcome, they seemed satisfied that the process was fair.
Paul's fans still have hopes of winning the state's 23 at-large delegates at the May 3 state convention, to be held at the Renaissance Hotel in Tulsa. The state party's executive committee (of which I am a member) will nominate a slate of at-large delegates and alternates. Traditionally, these slates are elected by acclamation, but that tradition can be overturned by the will of the majority and another slate elected.
The Paul supporters may also try to win Oklahoma's two open seats on the Republican National Committee. That would not only give them two more national convention delegates but two places on the party's governing body for the next four years.
If similar efforts in other states give Paul a majority of national delegates, a simple rule change could unbind all delegates from voting according to primary results, clearing the way for Paul's nomination.
Even control of a handful of state delegations would give Paul considerable leverage over the proceedings, including the choice of a vice presidential running mate and the rules that will govern the 2012 nomination process.
The machine against which the Paulinistas rage is made up of people who were insurgents themselves once upon a time. Many members of the current GOP "establishment"--the activists who hold party offices, attend caucuses, conventions, and the monthly meetings of various Republican clubs, and provide a volunteer base for Republican campaigns--came into the party as Reagan supporters in the mid to late '70s, as Christian Coalition-trained activists in the late '80s, or as talk radio fans in the early '90s.
These pro-military, pro-gun-rights, pro-life, and pro-tax-cut conservatives wanted to do away with business as usual in Washington, and after some nasty battles at county, district, and state conventions, they displaced a previous establishment that had been content to offer cut-rate versions of liberal Democratic policies and to languish as a permanent political minority.
The current party leadership can hardly be called mushy moderates. In 2004, when wealthy Republican donors backed Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys' campaign for U. S. Senate, grassroots conservatives lined up to support Tom Coburn, helping him to an overwhelming primary victory.
Oklahoma's party activists continue to hold to conservative views across the board on fiscal, social, constitutional, foreign policy, and border security issues.
The old-timers welcome the newcomers' support for a smaller Federal government and lower taxes, but they're wary that Ron Paul's supporters, some of them ponytailed and pierced, may tilt the balance in the party against social conservatism.
Their biggest policy dispute involves the Global War on Terror. To long-time Republicans, Ron Paul's "simple, humble foreign policy" looks like naïve appeasement of an aggressive religious ideology that seeks to destroy our way of life.
If nothing else, the Ron Paul insurgency has forced traditional conservatives, apathetic after years of tranquil conventions, to re-engage with the political process.
This year's Republican National Convention could rival the Democrats' Clinton/Obama clash for drama and conflict. What happens on May 3 here in Tulsa will give us an early glimpse of what could happen in September in St. Paul.
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