By Dana Milbank
TAMPA, Fla. – Delegates were finding their seats on the floor of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday when a commotion broke out in the back corner, near the Maine contingent.
Delegates and audience members erupted into chants of “Let him speak!” and “Seat them now!” Some waved signs proclaiming, “I am the Ron Paul Revolution,” and burst forth with a soccer ditty: “OlÈ, olÈ, olÈ, olÈ. Ron Paul, Ron Paul!”
Onto the floor, surrounded by cameras, microphones, stage lights and a crush of escorts and fans, strode Paul himself, in a purple lei bestowed upon him by Hawaii delegates. One delegate asked whether the libertarian gadfly came to stir up trouble for Mitt Romney. Paul smiled. His message, he said, was unchanged: “Liberty, prosperity and peace.”
But peace was not on the agenda in the Tampa Bay Times Forum for this afternoon. The Romney campaign had taken pains to stifle the Paul rebellion, by denying him a speaking role, expediting the roll call, changing party rules and even unseating Paul delegates from Maine.
As the new rules disenfranchising the Paul delegates came to a vote, shouts of “no!” and a cascade of boos poured from Paul supporters across the hall. Demonstrators shouted down the next speaker, a Republican National Committee member from Puerto Rico, and party chairman Reince Priebus hammered his gavel, pleading for quiet.
The outcome of the dispute, in Romney’s favor, was never in doubt. But the episode illustrated a recurrent tension for the Republican nominee: the orderliness of his world colliding with chaotic reality. In that sense, the convention may be a valuable lesson in Romney’s leadership style.
After the aborted first day of the convention, Romney strategist Russ Schriefer, in a conference call Monday night, drew a hard line regardless of the hurricane’s path toward New Orleans. “We expect no change over the next three days,” he said, according to The Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner. In their various conference calls this week, Romney advisers have expressed resentment that reporters continue to harp on the storm.
This is consistent with Romney’s approach to matters personal (he has taken considerable political damage for refusing to release his personal income tax returns) and political (he rejects requests for details of his tax policy). As for his acceptance address, “the governor writes his own speeches,” chief adviser Stuart Stevens, a Mississippian, told reporters on Tuesday.
Reporters in Romney’s press corps were stunned on Monday to receive an email from the campaign informing them that the candidate and his entourage would fly to Tampa on Tuesday for Ann Romney’s speech but directing the journalists not to report this news.
When reporters rebelled (there is no precedent for keeping travel plans secret when security is not the reason), the campaign said they could disclose only that Romney “will be in Tampa” – a condition the reporters also rejected.
Romney is discovering that he cannot control Isaac, he can’t control the press corps and he certainly can’t control Paul supporters. The dispute continued through the roll call vote, as state delegations announced well over 100 votes for Paul; the dissident’s supporters booed and shouted at the clerk, who refused to acknowledge Paul’s tally.
Romney’s team had lost control. If he is going to be president, he had better get used to it.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.