Photo By DENNIS MYERS Keegan Steele adds more stock to a sales rack of Romney buttons at the Nevada Republican Convention. His brother Collin also worked the booth.

The Republican state convention in Sparks was dominated by the passionate followers of the presidential candidate who came in third in the Feb. 4 GOP caucuses.

It was a settling of scores that was four years in the making, prompted by Republican leaders in 2008 who suddenly adjourned that year’s state convention to avert a similar takeover by the same faction.

After the February caucuses, which began this year’s process, supporters of libertarian Ron Paul—who received just 18.7 percent of the caucuses vote—did a better job of getting his people first to the county conventions and then to the state convention than did the supporters of Mitt Romney, who won the caucuses with 50.1 percent of the vote.

Last weekend, it all came together as Paul won in convention the victory he could not win in the caucuses. The Paulists easily unseated two of Nevada’s three members of the Republican National Committee—Robert List and Heidi Smith—and swept all 22 elected national convention delegate seats.

While perennial presidential candidate Paul was triumphing in Sparks, at the other end of Nevada, at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, the Libertarian National Convention was also meeting to choose its presidential nominee.

Many members of the Libertarian Party view Paulist libertarians in the GOP the way science fiction fans regard Trekkies. But they also see the Paulists as potential backers if the Republican Party mistreats them, as happened in 2008.

In that year, when the Paulists won control of the Nevada Republican Convention and were poised to elect a Ron Paul delegation to the national convention, party leaders who feared embarrassment to Romney—who had also won that year’s caucuses—and to expected nominee John McCain called off the state convention halfway through and chose national delegates later in a party committee.

This year, Republican regulars hoped to be ready for the Paulists, without the necessity of shutting down the convention. Just before the Sparks state convention, a letter from a national GOP counsel named John Phillippe seemed to spell out a way to legally hold down Paul influence.

Phillippe warned that under national party rules, presidential candidates could veto state selection of delegates ostensibly pledged to themselves. “If a prospective delegate’s name … has not been approved by an authorized representative of the candidate he or she professes to support, grounds for a contest may exist.”

In other words, even if the Paulists again won a state convention majority, Romney’s campaign could veto its selection of his delegates. Romney is entitled to a first-ballot vote from the delegates pledged to him, and if they are Paul backers, that vote could be threatened. Moreover, if his delegate seats are not filled with bonafide Romney backers, his campaign would be weakened in other ways—such as on credentials challenges, platform fights, and any second or later ballots. While delegates were allocated to Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Paul, in fact, all 22 elected Nevada delegates are Paul supporters.

Photo By DENNIS MYERS On the convention floor, delegate Heidi Waterman chatted with former U.S. House member Barbara Vucanovich.

Phillippe went so far as to warn the Nevada GOP that electing too many Paul delegates to the national convention delegation could result in “jeopardizing the seating of Nevada’s entire delegation to the national convention.”

The Paulists also encountered problems with another alleged party rule. The Paulists, who in 2008 mounted a fierce contest against the way the state convention was aborted, were told that this time any taped evidence for any challenge had to be recorded by people with “press passes.” Since those with press passes were unlikely to step outside their role as observers to aid a party faction, this was essentially a way of making sure that there was no valid record. (Both the Reno Gazette-Journal and Reno News & Review were approached about recording for the Paulists and both declined.)

There was no way to enforce the Phillippe opinion at the convention, particularly since even some of the regulars reacted in a “Who asked him?” way. But that did not reduce the regulars’ dismay at Paul’s policy positions or their resentment toward what they considered the self-righteous posture of the Paulists.

“I’m trying to educate them,” said one delegate who submitted to a taped interview but then declined to give her name. “They better be a lot less noisy than they were at the February [county] convention, because I’m going to have some head on head arguments with them if they’re as noisy as they were in February. They were obnoxious. They were deceitful. And at the central committee meeting they cheated. They took flyers and claimed that every name on that flyer was a central committee member. Well, they weren’t. Fifteen of them were Ron Paul people … claiming that they were incumbents to help them get reelected.”

She said Paul’s positions in favor of drug legalization, legal prostitution and reduced military activity are “completely opposite to the Republican platform. They’re libertarians.” A delegate seated next to her compared Paul to Ross Perot.

Heidi Waterman disagreed. In some ways, Waterman is a Republican dream come true—a convert. She came to the GOP with a sterling Democratic lineage—a one-time Young Democrats figure herself and the daughter of a former Clark County Democratic chair. She is the Republican candidate in Assembly District 24 against Democratic incumbent David Bobzien.

On the other hand, party leaders might regard her as an unreliable Republican who cares more about issues than party. She switched to the GOP because of her interest in Ron Paul’s opposition to incessant wars. As a newer Paulist recruit, she arrived without a 2008 history. Her impression this year was that if there were underhanded doings, they were not just on one side.

“We had somebody in a Ron Paul shirt—it was a Romney person—pass around a false slate telling what to vote for,” she said. “He got thrown out of the convention. … These [Paul supporters] are very principled people that are very passionate about what they’re doing. I wouldn’t consider it belligerent, but we’re not going to sit down and let somebody run all over us.”

While all this was unfolding, in Las Vegas the Libertarian Party smoothly went about nominating former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as their presidential nominee on the first ballot with 74 percent of the vote over online publisher R. Lee Wrights. Johnson, who LP leaders had tried to recruit in earlier years, began this campaign running for the Republican presidential nomination but withdrew on Dec. 28 after being excluded from most of the GOP television debates.

Libertarianism is a difficult-to-predict wild card in both political parties and in general election campaigns. It can cut across partisan lines, appealing to Democrats on issues like abortion and drug prohibition while drawing support from Republicans on removing restraints on business.

Though Paul represents libertarianism within the Republican Party, his 1980s attacks on President Reagan have undercut his credibility in the GOP, and his racist and gay-bashing views would hold down his vote in a general election. But depending on how he and his supporters are treated in the GOP, they could migrate to Johnson.

In a general election, Johnson is a less flawed messenger than Paul, who was the LP presidential candidate in 1988 (Paul received less than a percentage point of the national vote). Johnson is currently pulling about 7 percent of the vote in national Obama-Romney-Johnson survey matchups. In a year when rank and file Democrats and Republicans are less than enthusiastic about their likely candidates, even half that percentage could be important in a close race.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...