TAMPA — As a test of the proposition that Ron Paul could assemble thousands of activists for a national rally organized in a handful of months for the purpose of shaking the liberty movement’s collective fist at the Republican establishment, it’s hard to see “P.A.U.L. Festival” as anything but a failure.

The Paul campaign didn’t even embrace the rally, as it negotiated with the RNC about a speaking slot that never materialized. The underwhelming turnout which surprised even several of the festival organizers, was also due to unrealistic expectations — one staff member quoted 13,000 as the number of tickets sold (they offered two-for-one deals at the end) — not to mention the presence of Isaac, the tropical storm currently gathering strength somewhere between Haiti and Key West. The RNC has cancelled Monday programming as the storm is expected to become a hurricane today.

But the rally was as much about providing a meaningful capstone, beyond a YouTube video, to a long, divisive, and uncertain campaign, and supporting the sizable faction of Ron Paul delegates that will remain in town through the Republican convention. They need it. After enduring clashes with state parties across the country that erupted in physical confrontation in at least one case, the sense of betrayal felt by many of the Paul delegates runs deep.

“Having the sand kicked in our face through the whole process has really opened my eyes,” says Andy McKeon, 29, a Paul delegate from Massachusetts. “So many people use the excuse of voting for the lesser of two evils, [but] those days are behind me at this point. As soon as I’m done with this convention, I will not be voting for one of those two parties this November. Barring some miracle for Ron Paul, I’ll be casting my vote for Gary Johnson. My big hope is that the Ron Paul supporters don’t just go home and decide not to vote.”

Johnson himself spoke at length Saturday afternoon, courting those very supporters with his “be libertarian, one time” pitch, which targets non-voters as much as independents. Libertarians are a squirrely bunch, more likely to disdain the electoral process than cast a hopeless third-party vote or, God forbid, check the box for a Republican.

Several of the delegates I spoke with talked about the state nominating process in the beleaguered and adversarial terms you usually hear from grizzled Vietnam vets, not political operatives.

Daniel Hinch, 27, of Oklahoma, arrived Saturday afternoon unsure whether he was even part of that state’s official delegation. “It’s gonna be a long shot for me to even get into the convention at this point,” he told TAC. “There was a dispute in Oklahoma along the lines of what happened in Maine, over whether some of the delegates were legitimate or not. There were some violations of the rules at the GOP state convention. I was elected on one slate of delegates, and there’s kind of two competing slates of at-large delegates from Oklahoma, and some dispute over which ones are the real ones.”

“The committee on contests sided with the establishment slate, and the credentials committee heard our appeal earlier this morning, and they also sided with the establishment slate. So unless something happens on the floor, I’m not counting on being there.”

When asked about proposals to allow presidential candidates to vet delegates and request new ones from state parties, Eric Reimer, a delegate from Illinois replied, “What you’ve done is allowed the chairman and the heads of the respective states to run a monopoly over the election.”

But after state races that resulted in much bad blood and several lawsuits, it’s nothing these delegates haven’t seen before.

“It doesn’t matter what the people want, it’s what the party wants,” says Matt Pepke, 36, an Arizona delegate. “There’s a level of corruption that most people don’t understand. I didn’t understand it until I got intimately involved. They hide behind the facade of a private club and escape prosecution, but it’s terrible.”

“In Arizona, our ballots had, out of alphabetical order, Romney-endorsed candidates at the top. When they went to count the ballots the way they were constructed didn’t work with the machine, we had to do several recounts. Every recount was a different outcome. They ended up taking the one they liked best. And they closed the convention without a vote. But I think it’s pretty much on par [with other states]. They’re all corrupt bastards.”

Disillusionment aside, the gathering at the Florida State Fairgrounds maintained an upbeat tone. Ron Paul bands filled space between speakers including TAC contributing editor Tom Woods, Anthony Gregory of the Independent Institute, whose article on the drug war appears in the September issue, and Lew Rockwell, channeling characteristic moderation, telling the crowd “Ours is the most radical challenge to the state ever posed. [emphasis mine].” Walter Block entertained the audience with his faddish solution to abortion politics — called ‘evictionism’ — and ludicrous plans to draft an 80 year-old Ron Paul to run again in 2016.

It so happens that this unique group, the one constituency in favor of dismantling the Department of Education, the IRS, the Federal Reserve, and the Army, has its own music too. The PaulBands, an ecumenical moniker that includes artists working in the PaulMetal, PaulRock, PaulFolk, and PaulPop arenas, pumped out the jams throughout the day, amidst speakers, and well into the night (the content of their music is better left for another post). Real-live famous monster Michale Graves, who replaced Glenn Danzig as second lead singer of the Misfits and happens to be an arch-Republican, had been scheduled to appear on Friday night but he bailed, without giving any notice according to several festival staff.

Heading into the convention, it remains to be seen how the Ron Paul contingent will make their presence known. None of the delegates I spoke to had any knowledge of efforts to coordinate disobedience, such as turning their backs on Mitt Romney, or more outlandish ideas like nominating Paul for VP from the floor. They console themselves with the assertion that the liberty movement lives on even – especially, some might say — in the absence of major party recognition.

“This whole RNC thing is totally scripted for television,” says Kenny Bent, 59, a Paul delegate from Nevada. “Anybody who makes any noise will be removed. That’s the way it is. We have played by their rules all the way to get to where we are. And we’ll keep playing by the rules, even though they keep changing them.”