He made the big speech of his presidential campaign a day before the Republican National Convention convenes, 10 miles from where it will be held. But that didn't matter to Ron Paul or his nearly 10,000 devotees, who gathered for what many of them say could be the end of the 77-year-old Texas Republican's presidential aspirations, but the beginning of what they call their revolution. "We'll get into the tent, believe me," Paul said, "because we will become the tent."
Held at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome, the rally featured a mix of slick Paul campaign videos, musical performances, rousing political speeches from surrogates and somewhat off-the-cuff talks from libertarian economists, one of whom got booed while comparing abortions to eviction notices.
At the start of Paul's 67-minute speech, he spoke about this week's RNC. Paul, who never mentioned Mitt Romney by name, said he got a call Sunday from convention organizers, who told him he could make a speech this week.
"They're going to give me a whole hour and I can say whatever I want — tomorrow night!" he said before adding that he was joking.
"People at the convention are worried about just how much trouble we will cause," he said.
Attendees wore everything from tie-dyes to ties, sundresses to "Sons of Liberty" leather vests. One of the most prevalent themes, on signs and T-shirts: "I Am Ron Paul," a message that aims to sustain the movement beyond the man himself.
They sang along with the "Ron Paul Anthem," ("Ron Paul!/We're not going to give up the fight/Start a revolution!/Break down illegal institutions."), booed all mentions of the Federal Reserve and cheered as news video snippets showed Paul winning the Iowa caucuses.
Craig Westover, 62, is a Paul delegate to the RNC from Minnesota. His focus is on Paul's economic policies — and changing the GOP.
"The real significant debate that is going on today is not between the Democrats and the Republicans. It is about the debate going on within the Republican Party," Westover said. "The Ron Paul group is arguing it's not a function of government. … We're going to go to the convention, and we're going to hear how much better we are than the Democrats in running the economy. … The issue is, we shouldn't be running the economy at all."
Paul's wide-ranging speech Sunday hit on his major themes — protection of civil liberties; abolition of the Federal Reserve; and an end to military interventions — but also riffed on everything from the gold standard to 19th century mercantilism in England to restrictions on raw milk production to accused WikiLeaks whiste-blower Bradley Manning.
He decried the bank bailouts and the shrinking of the middle class. He said he'd heard someone on television say the other day that Osama bin Laden would still be alive if Paul were in charge.
"So would the 3,000 people from 9/11 be alive!" Paul said as the crowd roared. So would the military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.
"Take that and add $4 trillion, and our side wins that argument," he said.
His name alone inspired reverence from many attendees, hundreds of whom began gathering hours before the gates opened.
"Everything that comes out of that man's mouth is gospel," said Stephen Pena, a 23-year-old engineer from Houston,
Crowd members said they understood that the rally might not materially affect this week's RNC. But they had a broader view in mind
"This is the ripple effect," said Don Smith, 46, a North Carolina tool and die maker who went through bankruptcy, losing his home and business in the recent recession. "If Ron Paul never runs again, there will be someone to take up his place. This will not stop."
If the crowd's chants were any indication, many people have a replacement in mind.
"Paul '16!" they shouted as Paul's son, Rand, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, took the stage to introduce his father.
But Sunday was Ron Paul's day.
Arlene Judd, a Port Charlotte retiree, sat through the daylong event, including Paul's speech, listening from the front row of the arena.
"It was worth every minute," said Judd, 54. "Right now, I'm tired, but I'm motivated, too. … Now we can branch out like vines."