TAMPA, Fla. (USA TODAY) - Rep. Ron Paul is entering the twilight of his political career, but for the masses he inspired - the liberty movement marches on.
Thousands of the Texas Republican's followers filled the University of South Florida's Sun Dome to hear Paul speak on the eve of the Republican National Convention, a backdrop that served as a reminder of Paul's unsuccessful presidential campaigns and the reality that he is unlikely to seek the office again.
"It's just been great, the experience I've had these past five years," Paul said. "The people now are waking up and realizing the failure that we have and why the ideas we have are coming about." He offered a forward-looking message to his supporters, encouraging them to continue until their views are the GOP mainstream. "We'll get into the tent, believe me, because we will become the tent eventually," he said.
Paul, 77, is retiring from Congress this year and taking a step back from the public spotlight although he has said he intends to continue to be politically involved. It's forcing his supporters to think about how to carry on the small-government movement he inspired with his frank views in support of free-market economic policies and non-interventionist foreign policy, including his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We are Ron Paul. Everyone here is Ron Paul's legacy," said Buck Jones, 66, a retiree from Phoenix who has been a Paul follower since the 1970s when Paul wrote a sometimes controversial political newsletter.
"He's passing the torch to us, and we will carry on," said Jeanne Manwiller, 59, also of Phoenix.
Supporters at the "We are the Future" rally were urged by speakers to maintain the level of enthusiasm and engagement that has come to define Ron Paul followers, particularly since his 2008 presidential campaign.
"We all want to emulate Dr. Paul, in terms of his principles, in terms of his character," said economist Lew Rockwell, Paul's former House chief of staff, who advised those gathered to lead by example, get involved in political races and read extensively on economics and political theory. "We have a big job in front of us."
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Read all On Politics posts Paul's supporters have at times been characterized as a fringe movement because of their support for some of his views, such as his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but the tone here was decisively in favor of working within the Republican Party establishment to further their agenda. "We are trying to make the conservative movement conservative again," said Jack Hunter, Paul's 2012 campaign blogger.
Their efforts are complicated by a proposed change by the RNC's Rules Committee to make it harder for insurgent presidential candidates to get on the convention ballot unless they receive more support in the primaries.
The decision could hamper any presidential ambitions of Paul's philosophical heir, his son Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 contender who introduced his father at Sunday's rally to chants of "Paul '16."
Paul showed his father's penchant for unconventional policies in a speech that called for abolishing the Transportation Security Administration and auditing the Pentagon.
"I kind of think of him as 'Ron Paul lite,' " said Justine Mercurio, 34, a laid-off teacher from Buffalo, who echoed many supporters here. They said the senator still has work to do to prove himself worthy of the Ron Paul mantle. "We're monitoring him," Mercurio said.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a Paul ally in Congress who has built a following among Paul supporters, also spoke Sunday. "Sometimes I'm asked, 'Are you going to be the next Ron Paul?' I can tell you, there is no next Ron Paul, Ron Paul is one of a kind. Nobody can replace Ron Paul. Nobody. But there are many new champions."
The rules change to deter insurgent candidates such as Paul in 2016 came as the RNC was also reaching out to his supporters. He will be honored in a video tribute at the convention despite his ongoing public skepticism about Mitt Romney's candidacy. The RNC also amended the party's platform to include policy provisions Paul has advocated for, such as an audit of the Federal Reserve.