Ron Paul supporters walked out en masse from the Republican National Convention late Wednesday in protest of a rule change by Republican officials that removed some of Maine’s delegates in an attempt to suppress the group’s movement.
Chanting, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,’’ about 200 delegates and supporters marched around the perimeter of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and out the door as U.S. Sen. John McCain gave his prepared remarks to the convention.
“We aren’t coming back,’’ said Brandon Wilkerson of Virginia. “We are trying to show the audience and rule committee that mitt Romney eliminating duly elected delegates does not win the nomination and will not win the November election.’’
The protest was barely noticed inside the convention hall as the party faithful continued a well-scripted night aimed at attacking President Barack Obama,that was to culminate in a speech by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
But it underscored the bitter divide between the small but feuding faction of the Paul and tea party sector of the party and the establishment factions that controlled the convention’s well choreographed show.
The Romney campaign engineered a rule change late Monday that tightened the rules in a way that gave candidates more control over the delegates assigned to them during the primaries in the national convention. The rules previously had allowed delegates to switch to another candidate on the convention floor, potentially giving rise to an insurgency movement that could lead to a delegate fight.
“We’re walking out of the convention. We’ve put up with enough stuff,’’ said Jim Azzula, a delegate from Maine.
The protest started spontaneously, he said, as Ron Paul supporters who had walked out of the convention hall in protest of the rule change on Tuesday returned on Wednesday to listen to Paul’s son Rand Paul give a speech to the crowd.
“A lot of emotion came out tonight,’’ said Bernie Johnson, 45, a delegate from Maine, who has been a Republican his entire life. He said Maine had elected 20 Ron Paul delegates and 20 alternates but the RNC changed the rules and replaced them with a panel of appointees.
The Ron Paul delegates returned tonight but had no intention of sitting on the floor with the delegates appointed by Romney “and pretend that everything was fine,” he said.
But the Ron Paul delegates of other states joined with them and, in a show of solidarity today, wore signs on their Texas cowboy hats that said “Remember Maine.”
Once together to watch Rand Paul, they spontaneously decided to march out, he said. The Maine delegates led the way and hundreds of others followed.
Johnson said he has “always supported the establishment ticket but Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are making it awfully difficult with the purging of delegates and these rule changes.”
Wilkerson warned that “eliminating us will not eliminate our power or influence.
“This is a revolution and a long term movement,’’ he said. “It is not about one man. It is about liberty and equality and a representative process.”