TAMPA — The convention convened, finally, with the prayers, a gush of procedural pronouncements, the first pounding numbers by G.E. Smith’s rock band and, at last, the requisite appearance of delegates in silly hats.
The Texans wore white cowboy hats, while the West Virginians wore hard hats saying “Coal keeps the lights on,” and the Kansans dressed like characters from “The Wizard of Oz.” One guy from Wisconsin wore a cheesehead. Republican delegates have no desire to blend into a crowd — sartorially or ideologically.
Glinda the Good Witch was actually Helen Vanetta, 57, a Topeka doctor who serves on the rules committee, which had been in tense talks with supporters of Ron Paul and other grassroots activists. This was the big issue of the day Tuesday, the new rules that would give party elites more power over delegate selection. No problem, Vanetta reported: It’s been worked out. The Paul camp would be satisfied, she said.
“Point of order! Point of order!” the Paulites shouted in a fruitless protest as party bosses pushed through the adoption of the rules.
Political conventions in the modern era are group-hug spectacles, particularly on television. There is one main purpose, which is the canonization of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. But conventions are rowdier down on the floor, in the corridors, in the hotel bars.
The Republicans collectively are far more conservative these days — moderates are a mere rumor – but the GOP is hardly homogeneous. Party elites find themselves in charge of an unruly and unpredictable coalition, one that only gradually came around to picking Mitt Romney as its nominee after flirtations with various folks named Cain, Trump, Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum.
Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, standing in the Virginia delegation on the forum floor Tuesday, ticked off the various elements of his party: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, Tea Party patriots, libertarians, evangelicals, neocons. . ..
“I wish we were as homogenized as the Democrats. But we’re not,” Gilmore said. “Our party – my God – they’re all over the place. Makes it harder to win elections.”
Ask a Paulite about the ticket and his response is lukewarm at best, followed, almost reflexively, by references to Romney running mate Paul Ryan’s votes in Congress for the Patriot Act (which the Paulites see as the heavy boot of government squashing personal freedom) and the bank bailout.
In an interview with Fox News, Paul himself declined to endorse Romney. “Put me down as undecided,” he said. He added that he wouldn’t try to rein in his followers. “They’re going to do what they want to do,” Paul said.
Many Paul supporters feel shoved to the periphery and threatened by rules changes.
“It’s a railroad. They’re trying to stage a coup and make the grassroots completely irrelevant for the future,” said alternate delegate and Paul supporter Jeremy Blosser, 36, of Fort Worth, Texas.
The potential for some kind of disruption became clear as the delegates first filtered into the hall. When Ron Paul himself appeared, his supporters cheered loudly, letting everyone know that this was not just Romney’s show.
As the forum filled, committees met out of sight to discuss the rules. The rules committee struck a deal with Texas Republicans and Paul supporters: They’d drop a rule that would give a presidential candidate the power to disavow a delegate from a given state.
After the meetings concluded, the Paul supporters and their allies feverishly gathered signatures to block other rules changes. One, for example, would permit the rules committee to change party rules between conventions.
Dudley Brown, a rules committee member and unpledged delegate from Colorado who supports Paul, said that at a meeting Tuesday another rules committee member grabbed documents from a woman passing them around. The man refused to give them back.
“I don’t like men pushing around women,” Brown said.
Grassroots and tea party Republicans have also joined the Paulite cause. Sarah Palin has made her support for the floor fight known.
Finally the conflict came to a head with a floor vote on the report from the credentials committee. The report prevented half the delegates from Maine — many of them Paul supporters — from being seated due to problems with the way they were selected. Maine is one of a few states where Paul supporters effectively took over the delegate-selection process, even though he didn’t carry the popular vote in the state. The new RNC rules would prevent that from happening in the future.
“We’re fighting for our brothers and sisters of Maine,” said Harrison Whitaker, a delegate from Texas who said he would vote for Romney but supports Paul.
But the credentials report passed by voice vote. The Paulites erupted:
“Seat Maine now!”
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus gaveled the crowd back into order.
A number of Paul supporters marched out in protest.
Next came the rules vote. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) conducted a voice vote.
All in favor? “AYE!”
All opposed? “NAY!”
It was a very close vote. But Boehner made the call.
“In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it,” Boehner said.
“NO!!!” shouted the Paul supporters.
Ashley Ryan, 21, a Paul delegate from Maine, pointed at the Romney supporters.
“People from Maine didn’t choose these people. These people are an embarrassment to our state,” she said. “Our party has betrayed us.”
Soon the commotion died down. The life seemed to go out of the Paulite insurrection.
Back to business. The roll call began, and it was, as scheduled, a Romney Fest — made for television.
Staff writer Jason Horowitz contributed to this report.