Presidential candidate Ron Paul's supporters will be furious if he is denied a prominent role, such as a prime-time address, at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August. If that happens, it's likely that many Paul followers will feel cheated and stage protests in Tampa, then boycott presumptive nominee Mitt Romney in the November election, Paul sources say.
They say this scenario would deprive Romney of support from many independents, young voters, libertarians, small-government reformers, and others who now back Paul and who could make the difference in Romney's bid to defeat President Obama in the general election.
In advance of the convention, Paul supporters are moving aggressively to take control of as many state Republican parties as they can, replicating what evangelical Christian activists did in the 1990s.
Over the weekend, Paul backers took control of state conventions in Maine and Nevada. Even though front-runner Romney won the popular vote in both states weeks ago, Paul, propelled by his passionate and well-organized forces, emerged with most of the delegates. Paul activists had similarly outmaneuvered Romney earlier in Alaska.
Paul could also take over delegations in Missouri, which holds its state convention May 18-19, and in Idaho, Minnesota, Louisiana, and Iowa, GOP strategists say.
There doesn't seem to be much of a chance that Paul will supplant Romney as the nominee. The former Massachusetts governor is too far ahead for that. But Paul's cadres want his name placed formally in nomination and want him to be given a major speaking slot at the convention, in addition to having a big influence on the platform.
Another goal of Ron Paul, 76, and his liberterian followers is to create an environment for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ron's son, to become the next-generation libertarian leader on a national scale, some Paul supporters say.
The Associated Press projects that Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has 856 delegates to the convention out of 1,144 needed for the nomination. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennslyvania has 257 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has 130. Both Santorum and Gingrich have exited the race. Paul, a U.S. representative from Texas, has an estimated 94 delegates.
Romney could pick up 100 more delegates Tuesday when Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia hold GOP primaries. He is also expected to capture a substantial number of delegates in the Texas primary May 29, although Paul may do well there since it's his home state.
Republican strategists say Romney in on track to lock up the nomination in June when California and other states vote.
His problem is that it's increasingly apparent that Paul and his delegates will be a force to be reckoned with at the convention and beyond. They have yet to decide exactly how much they will push and how disruptive they will be, and Romney and his national advisers are being careful so far not to totally alienate them.