Supporters of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul on Saturday effectively took control of the Clark County Republican Party by winning election to 14 executive board positions, or two-thirds of the ruling body.
The election came during the county GOP convention where Paul delegates dominated, winning as many as half of the 1,382 delegates nominated to the state convention May 2-4 in Sparks.
Paul supporters chanted "Paul, Paul, Paul" as the new executive board took the stage.
"This is the grass roots taking a stand to change the direction of the party from the county level," said Carl Bunce, Nevada chairman of Paul's campaign and a delegate. "This is bigger than just Ron Paul. This is about liberty and openness and fairness and changing the party."
Bunce said Paul supporters share the same goal as the other Republican candidates: to defeat President Barack Obama in the fall no matter who becomes the GOP nominee.
Still, the Paul factor could complicate things at the state convention for Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner who won the Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucus in Nevada with 50 percent of the vote. He's still struggling to sew up the nomination.
Four years ago, Paul backers tried to take over the state convention, which GOP leaders shut down in response.
The 2012 state GOP convention will elect 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention this summer in Tampa, Fla.
Romney earned 14 of those delegates because of his 50 percent caucus finish. The rest of the delegates also were awarded proportionally, depending on the percentage of the caucus vote that each candidate won in Nevada.
■ Newt Gingrich got 21 percent of the caucus vote to pick up six delegates.
■ Paul won 19 percent for five delegates.
■ Rick Santorum won 10 percent for three delegates.
Bunce said Paul supporters would follow the rules, which require the 28 delegates elected at the state level to attend the national convention and be bound on the first ballot to vote in line with the GOP caucus winning percentages.
That could mean a Paul delegate would have to vote for Romney on the first ballot if he's the GOP nominee based on delegates won during the primary season. However, a contested convention could lead to more than one ballot, and delegates could then switch to other candidates.
"I don't view it as taking over the convention," Bunce said in an interview as he worked the halls to boost participation of Paul backers. "We will have delegate enhancement."
Ryan Erwin, a Romney campaign adviser in Nevada, said plenty of the former Massachusetts governor's supporters attended the county convention and he's confident the delegate selection process will be fair for all candidates.
"We feel good about our support here," Erwin said, adding he's sure Romney will be awarded the 14 Nevada delegates to the national convention as deserved. "Our goal is to have a transparent process and not have a repeat of what happened in 2008, which wasn't good for anybody."
Paul's backers made their presence known on the convention floor when Clark County GOP Chairman Dave Gibbs asked supporters for each candidate to stand to show support as the meeting began in the morning.
More than half the room stood and cheered for Paul compared to about one-third for Romney, dozens for Gingrich and fewer for Santorum.
Gibbs then asked how many Republicans want to oust Obama, and the convention-goers returned a united cheer. He said he wanted to demonstrate that although the GOP convention-goers are backing different Republicans now, the party will ultimately unite to put a Republican in the White House.
"I think the competition sharpens the candidates," Gibbs said in an interview, comparing the GOP nomination fight to preseason games. "It gets people excited and more familiar with who the candidates are. I think it's good for the party."
Gibbs said he wasn't too concerned by Paul supporters getting elected Saturday to all 14 executive board seats open. As chairman of the county party, he's one of seven official executive board members serving two-year terms. Those seven seats on the 21-member board weren't up for election Saturday.
"They showed up and they voted. That's why you have an election," Gibbs said. "The whole point is to get Republicans elected. That's my entire focus."
More than 3,000 Republicans attended the county GOP convention at The Orleans .
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller kicked off the meeting by slamming his Senate opponent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, and by making fun of Obama.
Heller said in his travels across Nevada during the past six to eight weeks to attend GOP Lincoln Day dinners, he asked people, "What are the things that scare President Obama?"
On the list, Heller said, is people who pay their taxes, a bank not owned by the government, a balanced budget, a town hall meeting where not everyone is a Democrat, and people who pay their mortgages.
Heller also turned on its head Obama's 2008 presidential campaign slogan, saying the thing the Democrat fears most is that, "the change that you believe in will be the Republican slogan in 2012."
The line drew applause from more than 3,000 convention-goers at The Orleans who filled a ballroom and two overflow rooms.
As for Berkley, Heller criticized his Senate rival without naming the congresswoman, who is running neck and neck with him in the early opinion polls.
"The difference between myself and my opponent will be this: I will be running on my record and she will be running away from her record," Heller said, calling himself a low-tax, small-government, free-market capitalist who wants reasonable regulations.
Heller said Berkley has voted for $15 trillion in new debt spending, for bank and auto industry bailouts and for Obama's GOP-opposed stimulus package and his health care reform that Republicans want to repeal.
The Heller-Berkley contest will be one of the hardest fought in the nation as Democrats try to maintain control of the Senate and the GOP works to win the majority as they did in the House in the 2010 election.
"We can change this country," Heller said near the end of his speech of less than 10 minutes. "We can change the United States presidency. And we can change the makeup of the United States Senate right here in this room, starting today. So I need your help."
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., delivered the keynote address to the crowd. He aimed his fire at Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate run by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Heck said the GOP-run House had passed 30 pieces of jobs legislation and a budget, but the Senate hasn't acted. He also decried the rising price of gasoline, now nearly $4 a gallon.
Heck mocked Obama's "we can't wait" series of executive orders and actions he has taken to get around Republicans in Congress who oppose his policies, which the president says is aimed at continuing the economic recovery.
"We can't wait for a leader in the White House," Heck said, earning a round of applause and heavy cheers. "There's a lot of buyer's remorse left over from the 2008 election."
The Nevada Democratic Party officials sneered at the GOP confab.
"What Nevadans didn't hear today is that instead of focusing on jobs, Dean Heller and Washington Republicans are pursuing an anti-middle class, pro-Wall Street agenda that kills Medicare by turning it over to private insurance companies to pay for more taxpayer giveaways to Big Oil," said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party.
"And while President Obama is fighting to create jobs and help struggling families keep a roof over their heads, Mitt Romney spent his career shipping American jobs overseas as a corporate layoff specialist and told Nevadans facing foreclosure they need to 'hit the bottom.' Nevadans will have a clear choice in this election between Democrats who are committed to creating jobs and Republicans who are prioritizing Wall Street billionaires over Nevada families."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.