Sunday, April 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Call 2008 the year of the great tumult, the year of the outsiders, the young, the tech-savvy who are changing American politics.
Although most of the attention, money and passion lie with the long saga of the Democratic presidential contest, Nevada’s state Republican convention here offered evidence of the ground shifting across the spectrum, with an actual earthquake Friday night serving as an apt symbol.
Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican with a libertarian’s heart, followed his second-place finish in Nevada’s January presidential caucus by out-organizing the state’s Republican establishment. In the process, the Paulites embarrassed the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
They seemed to make up more than half of the 1,300 or so state delegates to the convention. They won a key procedural vote on the rules, and their boisterous presence created significant delays, causing the convention chairman, Bob Beers, a state senator from Las Vegas, to recess the convention without selecting delegates to the national convention. The state convention is to resume at a later date.
Paul supporters occasionally shouted down the chairman, then rocked the convention with noise when Paul, their diminutive doctor icon, appeared to rally them.
The passion of the libertarians showed the sense of unrest of some grass roots Republicans following the party’s 2006 defeat and worrisome signs of another this year.
A surge in Democratic registrations has dealt Nevada Republicans a 50,000 voter deficit, while nationally, the GOP faces the biggest party identification gap to Democrats ever recorded by the Gallup polling organization.
Although it is largely papered over by the GOP establishment’s unifying behind McCain, party regulars are debating the future of the party, and especially whether to return to the small-government principles of the late Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.
Republican conventions are usually well-organized, rather staid affairs for bashing Democrats and rallying around the presidential nominee, in this case, McCain.
Not so this time, as many of the more than 1,300 delegates were Paul supporters who viewed themselves as insurgents taking on the establishment.
As Kelly Edinger, a delegate from Washoe County, put it: “On one side you’ve got a candidate with principles, on the other, Tammany Hall,” referring to the corrupt New York City political machine of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a wildly exaggerated accusation, but a reflection of insurgent attitudes.
The convention was filled with first-timers, including Shawn Moshos, a member of the carpenters union and a 34-year-old lifelong Republican energized for the first time this year. The southwest Las Vegas resident is head of marches, activism and special projects for a Ron Paul Meetup group, which is an online tool for organizing offline.
“It’s a little like going to church,” he said of Paul’s Las Vegas supporters. They meet socially and enjoy talking about shared libertarian principles.
Jon Martin is a young management consultant who lives in Las Vegas also at his first political convention. “Paul has ignited a fire,” he said.
Although McCain is the presumed nominee, Paul continues to rack up big vote totals in primaries, including 126,000 votes, or nearly 16 percent, in Pennsylvania.
In his speech, Paul called for an end to the IRS and the protection of constitutional liberties. He never mentioned McCain.
Martin is the type of libertarian voter who should concern Republicans. He said McCain is a “warmonger.”
Martin, who is hoarding precious metals for a predicted economic calamity, also showed the sometimes confusing ideological space these people occupy. He said he would vote for the radical leftist Ralph Nader if Paul isn’t a general election candidate.
Jeff Greenspan, Paul’s southwest director, said the Paul convention plan had been in the works for months. They dominated county conventions. And, in Reno on Saturday, they communicated strategy on the convention floor by mass cell phone text messaging, which no doubt kept them a step ahead of party leadership.
Robert Uithoven, a party strategist and adviser to McCain, acknowledged “there are divisions in the Republican Party. It’s April. I hope they’ll come over, and I believe they will.”
Uithoven said Paul supporters were able to gain a strong foothold at the convention because McCain’s lean campaign team had racked up victories by relying on free media rather than paid staff or volunteers. The campaign is adding staff and getting organized, Uithoven said.
As he noted, the division among Republicans is nothing compared to the battle going on between the Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.
Indeed, the minor skirmish among Republicans wasn’t the most telling incident of the day. That came from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Dean Heller, who both sketched out the attacks Republicans will launch on Democrats from now until November.
Romney said Clinton and Obama are “more concerned with what the ACLU lawyers think than protecting the American people.”
“I know Americans are going to chose a great patriot, a man who’s been tested and proven,” he concluded, which was a thinly veiled way of saying Obama is untested, unproven and has suspect associations.
Heller, a one-time moderate who has become a rock-ribbed conservative since joining Congress in 2007, threw the crowd some red meat. “If you cannot score above a 40 when you’re bowling, you probably are not physically fit to be president,” he quipped, referring to Obama’s failed attempt in rural Pennsylvania.
Playing off Clinton’s ad about being ready to answer the call at 3 a.m. in the White House and her fibbing about landing amidst sniper fire in Bosnia during the ’90s, Heller said, “If you cannot remember if you’ve been under sniper fire, you shouldn’t be answering the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Then he returned to Obama: “If you think our closets are full of guns, and if you think we go to church every Sunday because we’re bitter, well, I’ll let you answer that.”
Paul notwithstanding, that’s the campaign to come.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.