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TAMPA, FLA. - If the Republican National Convention takes on a Tea Party flavor with some libertarian spice, Mitt Romney backers can blame two women from Minnesota: Rep. Michele Bachmann and Marianne Stebbins.
Stebbins, a longtime GOP activist from Excelsior who led Ron Paul's Minnesota campaign, has become a key player in the fight to get Paul activists a front-and-center role at the convention.
Bachmann, who waited four months after dropping her own presidential bid to endorse Romney, headlined a fiery Tea Party rally on the eve of a convention choreographed to be a political coronation for Romney.
"Our goal is not political power, our goal is to live free," Stebbins told thousands of Paul supporters who gathered at a college arena a few miles from the convention, where the libertarian Texas congressman will command upwards of 500 delegates, including most of Minnesota's delegates. "When politics becomes the goal, we have lost the mission."
The Sunday rallies are the freshest threats to GOP efforts to portray the party as solidly behind Romney.
With many Minnesota GOP delegates firmly backing Paul, the state's GOP activists are at the forefront of a ragtag and tenacious collection of small-government libertarians who are ushering in what is proving to be one of the most transformative political movements in a generation.
Paul lashed out at Republican efforts to marginalize his supporters at the convention, telling those at the Sunday rally to stand firm because "we will become the tent eventually."
In a New York Times story published on Sunday, Paul complained that he was denied a chance to speak to the convention because he refused to let the Romney campaign vet his remarks and give an unconditional endorsement.
Learning how to fight
Stebbins, the only Minnesotan to speak at Paul's Sunday rally, talked about the scrappy origins of the Paul campaign in Minnesota, growing from obscurity to becoming a driving force in state Republican politics.
She described the Paul uprising as beginning about five years ago, when many "introverts and nerds crawled out of their parents' basements" and got involved, alarmed at the amount of government intrusion in their lives.
She talked about how they became friends first, then allies. The Paul supporters helped each others' businesses, set up ham radios and began "drinking raw milk from each others' farms."
"The overriding thing we had in common was that we wanted to live free," she said.
But they also have learned not to back down from a fight.
In the weeks leading up to the convention, Stebbins and other Ron Paul delegates were locked in a testy and increasingly public spat with Romney's campaign as it tried to tamp down any uprising and get control over which delegates are seated.
"Governor Romney's campaign ... adopted an attitude toward liberty Republicans that if you can't beat them, then beat them with a stick," Stebbins said last week. Romney's campaign "made it clear today that liberty Republicans and Tea Party Republicans are unwelcome guests at this party."
Republican National Committee leaders have been frantically negotiating with Ron Paul supports to cut a deal to prevent a convention-floor drama that could turn into an embarrassment for the presumptive nominee. Romney supporters have been fretting that Paul supporters could bring the opening ceremonies to a grinding and public halt. In a show of goodwill, the Romney campaign agreed to help add several key Paul principles to the GOP platform, including tough language about monetary policy. The Romney campaign also agreed to give Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a prime speaking spot at the convention.
That was not enough for Stebbins and many of the most devout Paul backers. She blasted the "party establishment" for snuffing out "the discussion of issues important to Americans but that might challenge party candidates."
Paul supporters said on Sunday that the party's candidates have strayed from Republican fundamentals and that they see themselves as a corrective force. Without naming Romney specifically, many speakers blasted fellow Republicans who have lost their way as much as they took shots at President Obama.
"Loyalty to the party or a candidate is having the courage to tell them they are wrong when they propose a policy that is contrary to small 'r' republican principles and bad for the country. That's best for party and country," Stebbins said. "They would prefer to put tape over the 'check engine light' rather than heed its warning."
The Ron Paul rally was a stark difference from more typical red-white-and-blue Republican gatherings in the Tampa area on Sunday. There were no Mitt Romney shirts or signs, but rather glowing portraits of a grinning Paul and impassioned pleas to audit the Federal Reserve Bank.
A call from the podium to audit those running the national convention drew uproarious applause. Even with tropical storm Isaac threatening the Tampa area, the mood was feisty and upbeat. The crowd exploded when John Popper, the lead singer for the band Blues Traveler, launched into a searing harmonica solo between speakers.
Craig Westover, a former spokesman for the Minnesota Republican Party, reminded more establishment Republicans of the movement's tenacity.
"If Governor Romney can condone a power grab by the RNC, what's to say he won't initiate an Obama-like power grab by the federal government when he is president?" he asked. "The real battle for the soul of America is taking place within the Republican Party."
Stirring up a storm
Across town, Bachmann addressed hundreds of religious conservatives at gathering called Unity Rally 2012.
"I am so proud of you," she said after being greeted by roaring applause and cheers as she jumped onto the stage at the River at Tampa Bay Church, a massive palm tree-lined charismatic ministry. "You have braved a hurricane to be here."
Bachmann said the Tea Party's insistence on less government spending and strict adherence to the Constitution are now etched in the GOP platform. She credited the Tea Party's pressure for prompting Romney's insistence he will repeal Obama's health care overhaul if he is elected.
"It is the Tea Party that has led the way," she said. "The Tea Party has been all over that platform."
In an interview after the speech, she warned that "we must always be vigilant. There is a lot of government we need to disable and a lot of freedom that we need to enable ... Now we need people to act, act in concert, and make sure our principles prevail."
Bachmann did not say whether she was disappointed to not have a speaking role at this convention, as she did in 2008.
"I will have a supportive role," said Bachmann, who is also a delegate. "I have already spoken at a number of related events."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044#