TAMPA — The libertarian torch may be passed, but not even the exclusion of Representative Ron Paul from the Republicans' convention can dim the light, the Texas representative and frequent candidate for president told a rally on Sunday.
"Believe me, we will get in the tent because we will become the tent,'' Paul told thousands of supporters a few miles from where rival Mitt Romney will accept the GOP nomination for president.
Paul, who ran for the presidency for the third time this past spring and has yet to declare a full-throated endorsement of Romney, is retiring from Congress after this year.
For Paul, it was the second time in four years he has held his own rally near the GOP convention, drawing thousands of supporters who intend to continue his fight against what they see as government incursions into civil liberties, the economy, and foreign nations.
Sunday's event at the mostly full Sun Dome arena on the campus of the University of South Florida was called "We Are the Future." Four years ago in Minneapolis, the Paul backers nearly filled the Target Center with a "Rally for the Republic" before the convention in nearby St. Paul.
At this year's event, there was more emphasis on the young disciples of Paul.
One of the warmest receptions was for Ashley Ryan, a 21-year-old Republican National Committeewoman-elect from South Portland, Maine, who drew a standing ovation from many for her criticism of party officials for refusing to seat 10 convention delegates the Paul forces assert they won fairly during a state party convention.
Instead delegates loyal to presumptive nominee Mitt Romney will take their seats. Governor Paul LePage of Maine, in apparent solidarity with the Paul supporters, announced he will not attend the convention.
By the Associated Press count, Paul has 177 committed delegates of the nearly 2,300 who will attend the convention. The Massachusetts delegation is among those who battled with party officials to seat Paul supporters, who turned out in large numbers at district caucuses after the state primary. Of 79 delegates and alternates from Romney's home state, 22 are Paul supporters who will vote for Romney's nomination.
"What do we do next?" Ryan asked, referring to the departure of Paul. "I say that no matter what happens, we make a commitment to get involved and stay involved at the local level."
Also enthusiastically received was Justin Amash, a 32-year-old first-term congressman from western Michigan. Amash has a growing following among some of the Paul faithful.
Amash drew roars from the crowd with his condemnation of the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. It codifies the government's right to detain without trial terrorist suspects. Amash was one of two House Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill by extending due process to anyone arrested on American soil.
"There is no next Ron Paul," Amash said. "No one can replace Ron Paul. . . . We are all champions of this liberty movement."
Paul's gatherings are a motley array of libertarians, with strict constitutionalists, veterans, fiscal conservatives, and young people. He is viewed with deep skepticism in many quarters of the Republican Party because his beliefs, particularly his noninterventionist foreign policy and support for drug decriminalization, fall well outside the mainstream of party orthodoxy.
But his supporters share a deep resentment of the expansion of government into their lives and overlap in their beliefs at points with a variety of other political activists on the right and the left.
During Sunday's rally, the targets of boos ranged from Obama and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to Romney and Rick Santorum, another of Romney's defeated rivals. Garnering cheers from the crowd were marijuana (which Paul proposes to decriminalize), raw milk, a sound currency policy, and Barry Goldwater (whose son, former California congressman Barry Goldwater Jr., was among the speakers).
Paul's initiative to audit the Federal Reserve received wide bipartisan support in the House and is part of the Republican Party's platform this year.
What will happen after Paul's departure from the political stage after three failed presidential campaigns (he was the Libertarian candidate in 1988) was on the minds of many Sunday, some of whom travelled long distances to the Paul rally and have no particular interest in the convention that will unfold in Tampa.
Ed Heine, an electrical engineer, brought his wife and three children from Mount Airy, Md., to the rally and was sporting a T-shirt declaring Paul the father of the Tea Party movement. A self-described "recovering neo-con," Heine said he believes what Paul has started will continue. "It's not about one man; it's about ideas," he said.
Andrew Salinas and Diana Mercado, a pair of 25-year-olds traveled from San Bruno outside San Francisco to see Paul on Sunday.
Both professed to have little interest in politics before they became aware of Paul last year. Salinas, an accounting and administrative assistant, said Paul's beliefs and underdog status appealed to "my rebellious side[and desire] to stick it to the man."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Brian Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.