Saturday, May 5, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The Nevada Republican convention that kicks into full swing today in Sparks is a key step for the Republican hoping to win the White House in November.
It also has the potential to be such a toxic display of the party’s divided factions and lack of organization that virtually none of the top elected Republicans in the state will actually set foot in the convention hall.
Even the presumed GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, is doing his best to steer clear of the drama expected to unfold at the convention Saturday as Texas Rep. Ron Paul and his legions of devoted supporters work to keep his long-shot candidacy alive.
Although Paul has failed to win a single primary or caucus this year, his supporters are intent on executing a multi-state strategy to capture enough delegates to influence the national convention in Tampa — and are using the party’s own arcane rules to do it.
For the past four years, Paul’s supporters have steadfastly taken over state and county party organizations, immersed themselves in delegate selection rules and plotted to circumvent the popular vote that Paul has so far failed to win.
Their guiding principle: A small group of devoted, educated and persistent individuals can beat the machine.
And even if it sounds ridiculous to some people — Romney, after all, has an estimated 847 delegates to Paul’s 80 so far — some of his supporters believe they can still win.
“This is what we have to do to stick it out so we can win,” said Paul’s Nevada chairman, Carl Bunce. “We have to participate the entire way. We have to invest the resources and the time, and we will have a victory.”
Nevada has been the proving ground for this year’s strategy. Four years ago, Paul’s Nevada contingent became the first to successfully capture a state convention.
Through relentless organization, use of technology and sheer grit, Paul supporters won a rules change that would have allowed them to elect their own delegates to the national convention.
The state party, so flustered by the coup, abruptly shut down the convention, turned off the lights and left. With the Nevada Republican Party unable to field its own delegation, the national party ultimately was forced to step in and select the national delegates instead.
Bunce said his group won’t let that happen again.
Rule No. 1 for the Paul contingent: Do not, under any circumstances, break quorum. In other words, as long as Paul’s supporters maintain a majority delegation on the floor, they can pretty much control the process whether the chairman tries to gavel it to a close or not.
“Unfortunately for the people running the convention, the body rules,” Bunce said. “We can eliminate whoever we like from chairmanship. We can make sure the rules stay in place. In 2008, when they turned out the lights, we were naïve. They tricked us into breaking quorum. That trick is not going to work this time.”
There’s no question the effort has set the national party’s teeth on edge.
As first reported by Sun columnist Jon Ralston, an RNC lawyer penned an explicit letter to the Nevada GOP chairman warning him not to allow Paul supporters to capture more delegates than he is entitled to through the results of the Feb. 4 caucus.
Romney won the caucus with 50 percent of the vote, meaning he gets 14 of the 28 Nevada delegates. Paul is entitled to five for his third-place showing.
But the two campaigns will likely battle it out for the remaining nine delegates originally slotted for Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
So far, the Romney campaign has been content to let the RNC take the public role in the fight while unleashing their lawyers to keep close watch on the process behind the scenes.
“It’s an issue for the state party and the national party to work out,” said a Romney campaign operative.
But the Paul effort presents an interesting dilemma for the Romney campaign, which can’t afford to be hamstrung by a divided party when he faces President Barack Obama in November.
The alternatives the Romney camp is mulling:
• Do we swoop in with a commanding display of force, insist on taking 20 of the 28 delegates and prove we have control of the situation?
• Do we work out a behind-the-scenes negotiation that makes everybody happy and avoids the inevitable train wreck that the convention could become?
• Do we just let the Paul supporters have their way, since it likely won’t matter to the national convention who the Nevada delegates are?
It’s unlikely the Romney camp will simply cede the fight, not when the presidency is at stake. But they don’t want an ugly debacle to dominate the news cycle either.
“For all practical purposes, the nomination of Gov. Romney as the Republican presidential candidate is functionally concluded,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, the co-chair of Romney’s Nevada campaign. “We will confirm that in Tampa in August. That doesn’t change, regardless of who is going to Tampa.”
That leaves negotiating with the Paul camp for a happy outcome.
Sources say those negotiations are ongoing. They could be fruitful, given that the Paul campaign has demonstrated some willingness to play within the party confines.
“I think there’s a path,” said one Republican source familiar with the negotiations.
But that would assume the Paul camp itself isn’t divided.
“Some people in the Paul faction are split,” the Republican operative said. “Some are saying, ‘Hey, two wrongs don’t make a right. Let’s play by the rules.' And then other folks are saying, ‘No, we’re going to stick it to them and do whatever it takes to win.’”
Meanwhile, Republicans such as Sen. Dean Heller, Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Rep. Joe Heck are keeping clear of the convention festivities.
Sandoval will be at a veteran’s event in Las Vegas.
As for Heller, his spokeswoman said he is “traveling today, returns tomorrow, and then he is going straight to his daughter’s soccer games.”