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By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON, July 26 For all the drama that surrounded the Republican primary season, the convention to formally nominate Mitt Romney as the party's candidate for president is likely to be suspense-free.
Well, maybe not completely.
Aside from Romney's coronation, the August 27-30 convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum will host another show: Ron Paul's farewell.
The 76-year-old representative from Texas will retire from Congress after November's elections, capping a long and colorful career. He is looking to take some of the limelight away from his former rival in the primaries.
Paul's followers - a small but intensely loyal band - have been collecting small packs of delegates from across the country since the congressman stopped campaigning in May, and they plan to be a forceful voice in Tampa.
Perhaps as many as 500 delegates out of the 2,286 total at the gathering will be Paul loyalists, keen to see the Republican Party accept his message of radically shrinking government onto its convention platform.
This has some Republicans worried that Paul and his often noisy supporters could upstage Romney and interrupt the tightly choreographed convention, just as the party needs to close ranks ahead of a tough fight against President Barack Obama and the Democrats at the Nov. 6 elections.
"If I were Romney, I'd prepare for the worst," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. Although he has almost no chance of winning the nomination, Paul is Romney's only Republican rival who has not withdrawn from the presidential race, and he refused last week to endorse Romney.
A former physician and a congressman on and off since 1976, Paul is no longer the marginal figure in the party that he once was.
His radical ideas about small government and minimal U.S. involvement abroad look more attractive to conservatives in times of a deep budget deficit and war weariness, although traditionalist Republicans balk at his isolationist foreign policy.
In a sign of Paul's influence, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved one of his pet projects, a bill known as "Audit the Fed" that would allow Congress to review Federal Reserve monetary policy decisions, even though the measure will probably die in the Senate.
Paul's supporters will try to force the convention to adopt an Audit the Fed motion on the party platform in Tampa, a symbolic move that would nevertheless put Paul's economic ideas at the heart of the debate over the party's direction.
"We are working very hard to get Fed transparency in the platform and have so far found several receptive ears," said Paul senior advisor Jesse Benton.
The platform is a declaration of party positions rather than a document binding on candidate Romney, but it nonetheless makes a statement about Republican intentions.
Romney and Paul, who is a three-time presidential candidate, were tacit allies against conservatives like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich during this year's primary elections and are on good terms.
The libertarian is unlikely to rain on Romney's parade by allowing backers, who include some Tea Party supporters and an energetic youth wing, to stage protests or become too rowdy.
"Certainly we're not trying to start a fight or go embarrass folks at the convention," Paul's former Iowa state director Joel Kurtinitis said. "We get a bad rap as rabble-rousers. That's not what we're about. We're trying to take our party back."
The Romney team helped the Paul campaign secure the University of South Florida's 10,400-seat Sun Dome arena in Tampa for a rally before the convention begins, perhaps fearing that Paul supporters might be too vocal at the convention itself without such an outlet.
"Gov. Romney has a lot of respect for Dr. Paul and the energy his supporters bring to the process," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "We look forward to broad participation at the Tampa convention and know the Paul enthusiasts will have their voices heard."
Giving Paul's fans some room could be a wise strategic move for Romney, O'Connell said.
"Romney has to take a very Machiavellian approach," he explained. "He wants to keep his friends - his supporters - close, and his potential enemies - Paul supporters - even closer."
But Paul has suffered a couple of recent setbacks that may dim his ardor at the convention.
Delegates backing Romney were elected at the Nebraska state convention on July 14, denying the Texas congressman the five primary or caucus states he needed to win to earn an automatic speaking slot. This means Paul will not speak at the convention unless the Romney team grants him a speaking role, which is unlikely.
And Paul's chances of influencing the platform became more complicated when Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a close Romney ally, was appointed head of the convention's platform committee, which writes the document.
When Paul stopped actively campaigning for the nomination in the spring, his supporters began scouring the country for opportunities to pick up more delegates in caucus states, predicting by June that 500 convention delegates would back Paul, even if roughly 300 of those were formally pledged to voting for Romney.
Benton said at the time that the delegates would push for the consideration of Paul policies including those on the Fed and deregulation of the Internet.
The Paul supporters might be helped by complicated voting procedures on the party platform that can see issues go to second rounds of voting.
Paul supporters could take advantage of split votes to push their ideas onto the agenda, said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
"There's a question of how intense the non-Ron Paul delegates are going to be," he said. "Are they going to be there? Are they going to be voting?"
If not, Paul's imprint on the party may be more prominent than expected in 2012. (Editing By Alistair Bell and Alden Bentley)