TAMPA — On Saturday evening, as ominous sea breezes blew Mitt Romney’s nominating convention off course, darkness also fell on the Ron Paul Festival 2012.
“Anyone here a Ron Paul fan?” a voice boomed over the loudspeaker inside the Florida State Fairgrounds. The question was noticed, but mostly ignored, as if it were an advisory that a silver Honda with plates DLIG74 had left its light on. The speaker was understandably unsatisfied and tried again. “This isn’t a Mitt Romney event! This is a Paul event! Anyone here a fan of Ron Paul?”
This time the crowd, or what was left of it, came to life with a cheer. It was a burst that seemed to expend whatever they had left in them. It had been a long day. It had been a longer movement, four year, eight years, for some even longer, and the election’s early months of apparent promise had yet again ended in a convention in exile. The Paul army could be excused for looking a little bit beat as the loudspeaker grew more ruminative than hype men usually allow themselves to be. “I was sad when we did not get hundreds of thousands of people here today,” he said. “This might be our last opportunity to get everyone together.”
The gang was, in fact, all here. There were the guys lugging duffle bags on their backs, wearing the kind-faced elderly congressman on their buttons, and drinking beer out of plastic cups. There were t-shirts (a snake coiled under an arching “Don’t Tread On Me,” an M-16 under the warning “Come and Take It.”) There were heavy guitar rock bands playing to sparse audiences under a “Thank You Dr. Paul” banner. There were balloons in the shape of blimps that read Revolution.
By about 8:30 p.m., the concert area, booked through midnight, was empty enough to feel like an airplane hangar. Activity in the adjacent room, where activists and entrepreneurs set up, was winding down.
The men minding the desk at The John Birch Society booth, who sat under a large photo of multi-racial smiling, or at least grimacing, children, called it a night. If anyone had been next to them at the Ron Paul Cruise booth, they had long since taken off. Some tired stragglers ate nachos soaked in cheese near a Libertarian Party stand where volunteers talked about catching Paul at a rally the following day or silently watched grainy video footage of Andre Marrou, “Libertarian Candidate for President 1992.”
“For many of you,” the man over the loudspeaker implored, “this is the last chance to see Dr. Paul.”
Not everyone was as stressed about the waning turnout.
“Want to take a stress test?” asked Kent Oliver, who wore a red shirt with a “Dianetics” label and was one of the workers manning the stress-testing Hubbard Mark Super VII Quantum Electropsychometer machine in the booth Scientologists had set up across from the “Make Your Own Gold Bars” guys. Oliver was not that interested in politics, though he was pleased that Romney had once named Battlefield Earth, a sci-fi novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, as his favorite book.
“I liked it too, it’s very interesting in that it tells you how the planet is being run,” said Oliver, who said he felt bad for Romney, a Mormon, when enemies attacked him for his faith. “Every new religion has this problem throughout history.”
A man with a bullhorn over by the nachos interrupted by saying, somewhat halfheartedly, “Ron Paul might be here in 15 minutes.” This caused something of a stir, but after a few minutes, the Scientologists surrounded by copies of Hubbard-penned paperbacks decided it was a ploy to get people to stay.
Oliver said that he liked Paul but was leaning toward Romney because he didn’t want to split the vote. Still, he said, “whoever gets in is not going to change anything,” and that the next president will “only follow the policy they make from above, whoever they are.”
He also said that while the hurricane might ruin the convention for Republicans in Tampa, he was unworried about it stressing out anyone in nearby Clearwater, where his church is based. “Hurricanes never come to Clearwater,” he said with a laugh.
In the concert area, an M.C. reminded the crowd that they had the floor for at least three more hours. Another group, this one called Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, took the stage and stuck their power chords and exclaimed, “We’re psyched to be here because Ron Paul is awesome.”
In the largely empty bleachers, above the mostly empty seats, a half-dozen young men and women hunched over, crocheting a red, white and blue American flag quilt. They explained that they hoped to see Paul the next day and present him with their offering.