TAMPA - 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."