- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LAS VEGAS | Dueling delegations pitting Ron Paul’s Nevada supporters against those of John McCain vow to take their fight to the Republican National Convention.

That’s just one sign that the outsider, Internet-fueled movement led by the feisty Republican congressman from Texas remains afloat in the wake of the Arizona senator’s victory in the Republican primaries.

In the libertarian-leaning West, where Mr. Paul’s message of distrust of the federal government and ardent individualism played particularly well, there is talk of Republicans straying from Mr. McCain. Libertarian candidate Bob Barr has emerged as a favorite alternative for Paul activists, followed by Constitutional Party candidate Chuck Baldwin.

Even if the numbers of such dissenters are small, they could spoil Mr. McCain’s chances in tight contests in key Western states, experts say.

“In Nevada, there’s absolutely enough to have an effect on the election,” said Chuck Muth, a leading conservative activist in a state where early polls show Mr. McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama in a statistical tie.

“I think that you will see not just Libertarians, who always vote for the Libertarian candidate, but conservative Republicans saying we’ve had it, we’ve had enough, and they’re going to go ahead and vote Libertarian,” Mr. Muth said.

Mr. Paul ran as the Libertarian Party nominee for president in 1988, but this year he carved out a following as an anti-establishment Republican. His campaign won more than 1 million votes and became a catchall for antiwar, anti-government voters and disaffected Republicans.

The eclectic coalition racked up significant numbers. Mr. Paul placed second - ahead of Mr. McCain - in Republican caucuses in Nevada and Montana. He posted strong showings in nominating contests in Colorado, Washington and Oregon. In early June, he pulled away 14 percent of the vote from the already certain nominee in the New Mexico primary.

This is the West Mr. McCain must win.

The interior West generally has been friendly territory for Republicans seeking the White House. Nevada, Montana and Colorado voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

However, history also warns of the impact of feisty Texans who preach small government.

“There’s little doubt Bill Clinton would not have won Montana if it weren’t for Ross Perot,” said Bob Brown, a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. “And I think it’s clear those votes were Republican.”

The same could be said of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, states where the two-time independent candidate for president is often given credit for Mr. Clinton’s breaking a two-decade-long Republican presidential winning streak in 1992.

The McCain campaign says it expects many Paul voters to come home to the Republican Party before Nov. 4.

“At the end of the day, Republicans are going to vote for John McCain. He’s a Western candidate who understands water issues, land issues. He’s a fiscal conservative,” said Rick Gorka, a campaign spokesman. “His message is appealing to a broad spectrum of voters.”

There’s little sign of that unification yet. In Nevada, state Republican officials abruptly shut down the state convention as a group of well-organized newcomers were poised to win delegates for Mr. Paul.

The group led by Paul supporters then held its own rogue convention and elected its own delegates. For its part, the state party couldn’t get enough delegates to attend a second convention and appointed delegates by committee. A judge ruled against the Paul supporters when they filed suit. They now plan to file a challenge with the Republican National Committee.

Both groups are heading to the national convention in St. Paul, Minn.

“We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, you guys got to play by the rules, and if you don’t, you’ll face the consequences,’” said Wayne Terhune, a 57-year-old dentist in Sparks, Nev., and a leading Paul activist in the state. “They just took the football and went home.”

Even without Nevada, Mr. Paul will send at least a handful of delegates to the national convention. Outside the convention hall, his supporters have reserved a 15,000-seat basketball arena for a “miniconvention.”

Mr. Paul hasn’t endorsed a candidate, but it is clear whom he is not supporting.

“I do encourage all the alternatives, obviously, because I can’t support either of the two candidates from the Republican or Democratic parties,” Mr. Paul told Revolution Radio, an Internet-based station run by his supporters. “I think that might send a message.”

In interviews with a dozen Paul voters from around the West, anti-administration sentiment rang loudest. Most were newly active in politics but had been regular Republican voters. They said their activism began with opposition to the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

As newcomers, they expressed little party allegiance and little concern that their third-party votes could benefit Mr. Obama, a candidate even further from their views than Mr. McCain.

“The notion is, let’s just break the GOP because the people who are running and holding office in it aren’t respecting what the constituents want,” said Jay Weeldreyer, a Paul field director in Renton, Wash. “So, if we can just let them suffer a massive loss, then maybe that will get through to them.”

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