TAMPA — Supporters of Ron Paul suspect the Republican National Convention is toying with them, and they're taking their complaint to social media, talk radio and anyone else who will listen.
"They've been fighting us all along," said Deborah Robinet, a southern California activist working to organize a three-day celebration of Paul's libertarian ideals on the eve of the convention. "We're Republicans. Do they want to alienate us or do they want to bring us into the fold?"
At issue is the location of Paul Festival 2012, which could bring an estimated 20,000 or more people a day to Tampa.
It would run from Aug. 24, four days after Paul's 77th birthday, to Aug. 26, the day before the convention begins.
In late March, the nonprofit group Liberty Unleashed — not a part of Paul's presidential campaign, but peopled by his supporters — applied with the convention to use the 355 acres of the Florida State Fairgrounds for an event that would bring together music, entertainment and activism.
The fair, east of Tampa, is one of the 73 official event venues for the convention. The Republican Party's convention planners control which groups go to which venues.
Robinet said conversations with the fairgrounds seemed to be going well until last week, when she heard from two convention staff members that no decision had been made, and it could take another two weeks while other requests for the fairgrounds were considered. No, she said she was told, it didn't matter that the Paul Festival applied in March, because this wasn't a first-come, first-served decision.
"We can't proceed without a secured venue," Robinet said Monday. A kickoff announcement, ticket sales, fundraising and contracts with bands and other talent — all have to wait until the location is in hand. The longer it takes, the harder it will be.
"And I think that is their goal," she said.
Not true, convention spokesman James Davis said.
The convention is sorting through requests from "several hundred" applicants for use of official venues. Many venues have been notified which state delegations, corporations, media companies, interest groups and other organizations they can go ahead and book. Other decisions have yet to be made, and Davis said organizers are working to match groups "from across the board" to locations.
"We haven't denied anyone on any venues," he said. "We're doing this on a rolling basis, and we're getting to this as quickly as we possibly can."
Davis said there has been other interest in the fairgrounds, though he didn't have details on any competing requests.
Fair director of sales and marketing Terri Parnell said the fairgrounds talked to "a few other groups" in recent months, but ended up doing the most work on a lease for the Paul Festival. None of the other groups were nearly as big, she said. Now fairgrounds officials are "standing ready and wanting to work with any group that wants to work with us," she said.
Of course, what's going on outside the convention mirrors the dynamic shaping up inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Paul is no longer actively campaigning, but his supporters have continued fighting for delegate seats in Tampa and turning a few state GOP nominating conventions into noisy, bruising scrums.
Davidson College political scientist Josh Putnam has monitored the nomination process and expects Paul to have 150 to 200 delegates bound to him at the convention, plus control over at least four state delegations.
Joining Paul's delegates in Tampa will be festivalgoers coming to town in "Ronvoys" — convoys of vans carrying 12 to 15 passengers from cities as far away as San Francisco, Milwaukee and Spokane, Wash.
Robinet said the festival is meant to be inclusive, and organizers would welcome the participation of other Republican leaders. Certainly the entertainment sounds diverse. Organizers have announced no names yet, but promise everything from stand-up comedy to book-signings to documentaries. The music could include classic rock and country, but also grunge, punk and hip-hop.
Frustrated at what they see as an RNC attempt to block their plans, festival organizers are reaching out to Paul's legions to put pressure on the GOP's convention staff. The message: We aren't going away.
"I don't know why they want to upset the Ron Paul movement, because we're coming down there anyway," Robinet said. "It just makes more sense for us to have an area where we can celebrate."
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.