TAMPA, Fla. — Delegates were finding their seats on the floor of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday when a commotion broke out in the back corner, near the Maine contingent.
Delegates and audience members erupted into chants of "Let him speak!" and "Seat them now!"
Onto the floor, surrounded by cameras and a crush of escorts and fans, strode Ron Paul himself. One delegate asked whether the libertarian gadfly came to stir up trouble for Mitt Romney. Paul smiled. His message, he said, was unchanged: "Liberty, prosperity and peace." But peace was not on the agenda this afternoon.
The Romney campaign had taken pains to stifle the Paul rebellion, by denying him a speaking role, expediting the roll call, changing party rules and even unseating Paul delegates from Maine. But as Romney and the Republicans learned repeatedly this week, politics does not always go according to plan.
As the new rules disenfranchising the Paul delegates came to a vote, shouts of "no!" and a cascade of boos poured from Paul supporters across the hall. Demonstrators shouted down the next speaker, a Republican National Committee member from Puerto Rico, and party chairman Reince Priebus hammered his gavel, pleading for quiet. Convention officials evicted some of the loudest demonstrators, who filled the hallways with shouts of "fraud!" and "farce!" and "sheep!" Paul supporters inside the hall resumed their booing and cries of "no!"
The outcome of the dispute, in Romney's favor, was never in doubt. But the episode illustrated a recurrent tension for the Republican nominee: the orderliness of his world colliding with chaotic reality. Romney is by many accounts a control freak, a stickler for rules and order. His campaign, following his instincts, runs the same way -- and it struggled mightily to stick to its script even as Hurricane Isaac zeroed in on New Orleans. In that sense, the convention may be a valuable lesson in Romney's leadership style. The presidency is one storm after another, some natural and others man-made. Can Romney adapt when a crisis causes a script change? So far, the indication is he expects the crisis to adapt to him. In their various conference calls this week, Romney advisers expressed resentment that reporters continued to harp on the storm.
This is consistent with Romney's approach to matters personal (he has taken considerable political damage for refusing to release his personal income tax returns) and political (he rejects requests for details of his tax policy). As for his acceptance address, "the governor writes his own speeches," chief adviser Stuart Stevens told reporters on Tuesday.
Reporters in Romney's press corps were stunned on Monday to receive an email from the campaign informing them that the candidate and his entourage would fly to Tampa on Tuesday for Ann Romney's speech but directing the journalists not to report this news. When reporters rebelled (there is no precedent for keeping travel plans secret when security is not the reason), the campaign said they could disclose only that Romney "will be in Tampa" — a condition the reporters also rejected. This follows recent episodes in which Republican aides told reporters from television stations in Colorado and Ohio that they should not ask the candidate about certain topics.
Romney discovered that he cannot control Isaac, he can't control the press corps and he certainly can't control Paul supporters.
"Bunch of morons!" Dave Johnson, a Romney delegate from Ohio, shouted at the Paul supporters as they chanted. "We have principles!" countered Joe Jurecki, a Paul delegate from Michigan.
"Your principles are going to get Obama elected!"
"Romney cannot beat Obama!"
The dispute continued as state delegations announced well over 100 votes for Paul; the dissident's supporters booed and shouted at the clerk, who refused to acknowledge Paul's tally. Romney's team lost control. If he is going to be president, he had better get used to it.