Ron Paul backers succeed in guerilla takeover of some GOP caucuses
By Jo Mannies
POST-DISPATCH POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT
Republican presidential hopeful, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas
The first hints were the phone calls.
Never before had St. Charles County Republican Party Chairman Jon Bennett received so many queries about where this year's party caucus was to be held. And Bennett didn't recognize most of the callers.
On Saturday, Bennett learned why. Dozens of avid supporters of Ron Paul, a Texas congressman who is running a renegade quest for the presidential nomination, staged a political guerrilla attack. At that caucus at St. Peters City Hall — as well as others across the state — party regulars like Bennett were overwhelmed.
Caucuses in Missouri, held only in presidential election years, are typically low-key affairs attended mainly by party diehards. But this year, the pro-Paul activists commandeered gatherings in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Springfield. Paul supporters also controlled caucuses in at least a half dozen rural counties.
The result: Paul's supporters predict they have snagged roughly a third of the 2,137 state Republican delegates. Those delegates will determine the state GOP platform this spring and help select the presidential delegates to the national Republican presidential convention in Minneapolis in September.
The unorthodox push, which sparked shouting matches in some meetings, reflected Paul's campaign — an anti-establishment, grass-roots movement built on passion.
"This is a movement for change in the long term," said Ruth Carlson, a 24-year-old secretary from St. John who helped organize Saturday's push in the St. Louis area.
At many of Saturday's caucuses, the Paul contingents also won approval for some of their man's key positions, including resolutions for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and against the federal Patriot Act and warrantless wiretaps.
But the most politically explosive resolution called for repealing the Missouri Republican Party requirement that all of the state's 58 GOP presidential delegates back the victor in the Feb. 5 primary: U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., now the presumptive presidential nominee.
In Missouri's presidential contest, Paul obtained less than 5 percent of the statewide Republican vote.
Missouri leaders of Saturday's pro-Paul effort insist that they're not driven by a quest to resurrect his chances for the White House.
Carlson and other Paul supporters say their aim is to force the Missouri Republican Party to embrace Paul's principles.
"We're not holding out an illusion that Ron is going to win the nomination," said Debbie Hopper, Paul's national field director. "This is about calling the Republican Party back to its roots."
Hopper — who lives in Fenton and was herself elected a delegate Saturday at a caucus in St. Louis County — cited other caucus successes by pro-Paul supporters in other states, including Nevada, Colorado and Washington.
But Missouri Republican officials plan to fight back. State Republican Party Executive Director Jared Craighead said party leaders will be examining the lists of caucus-goers, and of the newly elected state delegates. He contends that some of the Paul activists involved in the caucuses were really Democrats or Libertarians who should be tossed off.
However, St. Louis city Republican Chairwoman Judy Zakibe joined Bennett in asserting that some of the blame lies with Republican elected officials and party activists who stayed home Saturday.
"Our people didn't come out," Zakibe said. "That's what cost us."
But Bennett accused the Paul forces of deception. At the St. Charles County caucus, Paul backers did not identify themselves as such. Instead they promoted a group of proposed delegates they called the Conservative Values slate.
"They went out of their way not to use 'Ron Paul,'" Bennett said. "Intellectually they were dishonest about their reasons."
Still, Bennett had to appreciate their success: "I'll hand them kudos for being activists. I'll hand them kudos for being organized."
Brent Stafford, a computer analyst from O'Fallon who headed the pro-Paul forces in St. Charles County, gave credit to his side's stealth preparations, which included mock caucuses.
Whatever happens, organizer Carlson said Saturday's victories should prove that Republican Party leaders can't ignore Ron Paul, his views or his supporters.
She added with a chuckle: "We're not just a bunch of people on the Internet. We show up."