TAMPA, Fla. - Nevada Republicans who attended a raucous rally for Ron Paul on Sunday vowed to keep fighting for his libertarian principles and return the GOP to its conservative roots.
"Our liberties are under attack," declared Carl Bunce, the chairman of Paul's GOP presidential campaign in Nevada. "I view Nevada as the flagship of the liberty movement."
Bunce addressed the rally from the stage inside the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida, where about 9,000 Paul supporters gathered to celebrate the man who will not be president.
The six-hour rally, punctuated by blues and rock band sets, came ahead of the Republican National Convention, which this week will nominate Mitt Romney as the GOP presidential candidate and Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, as his running mate.
Paul was not invited to speak at the convention, although the GOP plans a video tribute to him in an effort to mollify his backers, who have been trying to win enough support to nominate him from the convention floor. He did not endorse Romney in his speech.
Paul, a Texas congressman, was greeted like a political rock star with deafening screams. He joked he had been invited to address the convention after all -- tonight when the schedule was canceled because of the threat to Tampa from Tropical Storm Isaac.
"They said I could speak for one hour and say anything I want," Paul said. "I'm just kidding."
Paul said the GOP fears his small government agenda and his foreign policy ideas to reduce U.S. military presence around the world. He said he had read articles in recent days saying the Paul "revolution is over." He said it's not true, and his followers - from college youth to veterans to middle-class Americans tired of U.S. debt - are here to stay. He said they will diversify the GOP, which for years has said the party wanted to include everybody under a "big tent."
"We will become the tent eventually, once they know that we are the future," Paul said, drawing cheers. "It seems to me that they would be begging and pleading for us to come into the party."
The 77-year-old's speech - clocking in at 77 minutes - was interrupted with chants of "President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!"
The biggest applause came when Paul called on the military to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and when he called for more personal liberties. He said people should be allowed to drink raw milk, use hemp products and "smoke and drink what they want."
"The government shouldn't be allowed to protect you from yourselves," he said.
A few rally-goers saluted the remarks by lifting plastic cups of beer and wine that were available for purchase. One speaker joked about pot smoking, wryly saying it wasn't allowed.
The room erupted when Paul called for auditing the Fed, which controls the monetary supply.
Nevada delegate Bunce told the rally that the "liberty movement" will grow stronger in the next four years. And he encouraged people to follow his example and become active within the GOP. Bunce is vice chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, which is now run by Paul backers in populous Southern Nevada where most voters live.
"Myself and others, we're in the belly of the beast," Bunce told the crowd, which cheered its approval. "When the message of liberty wins anywhere we all win."
Bunce mocked establishment Republicans in the Silver State who have started a shadow organization, Team Nevada, to help elect Romney as he faces President Barack Obama in the battleground state, which could decide the election.
"The establishment has just folded up their tent," Bunce said.
Bunce was among about two dozen Nevada delegates, alternates and guests to the Republican National Convention who attended the Paul rally about half an hour from downtown Tampa.
Twenty-two of Nevada's 28 national delegates are Paul supporters, although most are obligated by GOP rules to vote for Romney's nomination since he handily won the Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucus in the state. Romney was awarded 20 Nevada delegates and Paul eight in the binding caucus vote after the other Republicans dropped out of the race.
The Paul backers are still hoping to nominate him from the convention floor Tuesday, but the effort will likely fail since at least five states must have a majority of Paul delegates to put his name in contention - even just to demonstrate a show of support.
Paul, in his remarks, criticized Republican National Committee leaders for working to eliminate some of the delegates he won at the state convention level by changing the rules last week.
"They've learned how to bend rules, break rules and now they want to rewrite the rules," said Paul, who added he wasn't surprised since politicians break the rules all the time in Congress.
Kurt Criss, a Paul delegate from Elko, said he was disappointed Paul was not allowed to address the convention. He said the GOP needs to allow more real competition during the primary season and at the convention to ensure the "most constitutional candidate" wins the nomination to return the Republican Party to its conservative principles.
"I'd rather see a real convention rather than a coronation," Criss said at the rally. "We're not afraid of any hurricane. We've been through worse to get here."
Criss and other Paul supporters said they would likely attend today's brief session to ensure the Republican National Committee doesn't conduct any business that might further weaken the Paul forces, who have been stripped of delegates in several states by rules and credential committees. Paul has at least 175 national delegates and more supporters, although Romney has surpassed the 1,144 delegates he needs to seal the nomination.
The roll call of the states nominating process originally was scheduled for today, but the RNC canceled all the first day's events because of Tropical Storm Isaac threatening Tampa. The roll call is now scheduled for Tuesday.
Nevada's delegates are seated far in the back of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the convention will take place, tucked just in front of Rhode Island.
Cynthia Kennedy, a Paul supporter and Nevada delegate from Virginia City, said she didn't care about the bad seating.
"They can give us a crummy place in the hall, but this rally here today shows everyone there's no lack of energy for Paul," Kennedy said.
Donna Bath, a Nevada delegate from Ely who supports Romney, said she wished the Paul faction would focus on defeating Obama rather than fighting the GOP leaders.
"We need to keep our eye on the prize," Bath said. "If we truly want to change our nation, we need to band together as a unified force."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.