MISSOULA – Sen. John McCain may be the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but supporters of Ron Paul in Montana refused to abandon their candidate.
The group led an impassioned, but friendly fight Friday at the Montana GOP convention, shaking things up in an effort to secure the state’s 22 national convention delegates for Paul — who suspended his presidential bid earlier this month.
The battle jazzed up a normally dull delegate selection process, but the Paul supporters were unable to muster enough votes to trump McCain’s backers. In the end, McCain received all 22 delegates despite a close vote, party officials said.
Earlier in the evening, Paul told the excited crowd that his support in Montana was the best he had received anywhere.
“Montana’s been treating me quite well,” Paul said. “The spirit is alive here.”
The Texas congressman praised the Montana GOP for letting him speak at their evening dinner and for giving his delegates a chance.
“This is has been one of the best — if not the best — in the way we have been treated,” Paul said.
Paul was not a typical GOP convention headliner. He criticized nearly as many Bush administration ideas, such as wartime spending and No Child Left Behind, as he did Democratic ones.
But he received a warm reception from the crowd anyway with a message heavy on cutting government.
“We are talking about the fundamental beliefs of the Republican Party,” said Paul, in what he characterized as likely the last speech of his suspended campaign. “These are issues that are important to me.”
Paul’s supporters said they would continue to fight for delegates at the national convention to honor the principles of the campaign, and as a way to continue pushing their ideals.
Paul finished second in Montana’s Super Tuesday caucus — behind Mitt Romney and ahead of McCain, who finished third.
Several hundred state delegates were divided between the Paul supporters and a list of McCain backers vetted by the state party.
The delegate selection process was complicated and started at county conventions held in previous weeks. It favored a strong organization able to coordinate local and state delegates, and one that was able to woo backers of those candidates no longer in the race.
McCain was able to capture all 22 delegates due in part to the way the voting was structured, which allowed each person to vote all at once for their candidate’s slate of delegates.
McCain’s backers, including most of the longtime Montana Republican Party operatives and officials, spoke in favor of unity. And they said Paul supporters need to recognize that.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the enthusiasm from our newfound friends,” said state Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell. “But John McCain is the nominee now, please support his slate (of delegates).”
Paul supporters promised to bring new voters to the state party and promised allegiance to conservative principals. They also tested the state party chairman’s promise to run an inclusive party.
“To walk that walk, we need to fill that slate with balance and diversity,” said Harry Kenck of Missoula.
The division was obvious. The McCain backers were lined up on one side of the room; Paul supporters on the other.
“This is no way to establish party unity,” said Jerry O’Neil, a maverick state senator who was supporting Paul.
There were also allegations of trickery.
Former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, presiding over the delegate convention, said that someone had circulated a false list of delegates that supported McCain — when in fact some on the list were not official McCain backers. Presumably this was done to bolster Paul’s chances.
“(Paul) would consider this reprehensible, submitting information to try to trick people,” Hill said. “It is reprehensible that some would try to corrupt this process.”
Party Chairman Erik Iverson said he was happy to have all the new interest in the party, and said the attendance of more than 400 set a summer convention record.
“This entire convention has been a lot of fun. We have met a lot of new friends,” Iverson said. “We came into this convention through a bunch of different doors. We need to keep focused on exiting out one door as a unified party.”
Paul people, some of whom said they felt a little like rebellious outsiders, said they would stay involved.
“We’re here to stay, and we’re here to make positive changes for the party,” said David Hart, Paul’s state coordinator.
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