I’d been in Tampa for all of 15 minutes, and I was already late for something. Of course, I knew that the real Republican National Convention would occur far from the klieg lights and sound bites of prime time. It’d be found in closed-door meetings, invitation-only events and the visceral experience of witnessing the awkward, painful birth of history in the making.

The week before the RNC, that manifested in the creation of the official GOP platform. According to a Washington Post account, proposals included returning to the gold standard, safeguarding against Sharia law, loosening gun regulations and building a new border fence.

A lot has changed since Nov. 4, 2008, not the least of which is the hope that carried Barack Obama to the White House. That election night, millions cheered and unicorns galloped through the streets of Chicago as Oprah and I sniveled.

Four years later, we’re in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Beyond global recession and worldwide political upheaval, the partisan divide has reached Grand Canyon proportions while the national discourse has sunk deep into a fetid swampland of Fox News, death panels, MSNBC, bailouts, birthers, Facebook and Occupy [Insert Location Here].

“Too often in today’s poisonous atmosphere, those of us who reach across the aisle to work with colleagues of a different party end up vilified by the far left and the far right,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, told me in an email. “As one constituent said to me, ‘Why can’t you all be Americans first?’”

It’s an election year, for starters. Republicans cite rabid liberalism, socialist agendas and Obama’s utter lack of leadership as their excuse for being obstructionists. Democrats clamor about radical conservatism, cynical right-wing sabotage and the hot mess Obama inherited for their apparent impotence. It’s the worst game of “But They Did It First” ever.

Whether you view the Tea Party as a beacon of light or the heart of darkness, there’s no denying that the consortium of pissed-off conservatives represents both the fervent desire for a better future and the philosophical abyss that divides the country’s partisans.

LIBERALS SEE THE TEA PARTY AS THE CONSERVATIVES GOING OFF THEIR MEDS.

Virtually every Republican I spoke to during the RNC believes the Tea Party is unfairly maligned and its key issues (fiscal conservatism, small government, taxes) frequently misrepresented. Liberals see the Tea Party as the end result of conservatives going off their meds en masse. Republicans see a grassroots return to conservative principles.

What the movement has indisputably done is energize Republicans and accelerate the precocious rise of hard-line candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY.

Speaking to the Unity Rally about the official party positioning, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-MN, declared, “The Tea Party is all over that platform.”

For all the rewards – and risks – the Tea Party provides to Republicans, arguably no individual holds more power in keeping the alliance intact than former presidential candidate and Libertarian idol Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a legislator with a more passionate and flat-out perplexing political fan base. The night before the convention, Paul loyalists gathered at a waterfront bar called Whiskey Joe’s for a late-night event hilariously titled “Ron Paul’s Liberty Rocks Beach Party,” featuring Blues Traveler frontman John Popper and blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan.

In a bizarre scene, dudes sporting goatees and cargo shorts threw back Coronas on the beach alongside guys in suits and discussed the merits of the Keystone Pipeline, how the tax system is institutional thievery and why the Federal Reserve should be investigated. All while being pelted with swirling wind and rain brought on by Tropical Storm Isaac.

“We’re all very independent-minded, and that’s one of the great things about the liberty movement,” said Bryn Dennehy, a 24-year-old college student who traveled from Eugene, Ore. “On the flip side, that means everybody kind of wants to do their own thing, so it can be kind of hard to get everybody organized.”

Nevertheless, Paul supporters had the second-most-visible presence on the streets of Tampa beside the thousands of law-enforcement officers deployed during the convention. The city had braced for upwards of 5,000 protesters. Instead, they got a whole lot of weak sauce.

The convention perimeter was fortified for an invasion. Instead, the only “activists” to show were Ron Paul supporters, bored street kids, a few curbside preachers, two anti-gay groups, some Scientologists and scattered advocacy groups. The lack of dissent expressed by virtually anyone not affiliated with Ron Paul wasn’t a ringing endorsement for Romney. It became clear – in the way people chose their words like it was their last meal – that few were enamored with the nominee.

IT’S THE WORST GAME OF “BUT THEY DID IT FIRST” EVER.

“It’s hard to find the perfect candidate,” said Jerry T. Miller, a Kentucky delegate. “If I could, I’d probably take a quarter of Romney, a quarter of Ron Paul, a quarter of Rick Santorum and maybe a quarter of Newt Gingrich.”

That sound you hear is liberals collectively shuddering. Then again, in an era of Super PACs gone wild after being unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, anything is possible in an election where both campaigns will collectively spend more than $2 billion.

But while unbridled enthusiasm for Romney may be lacking, complete vitriol for Obama – supplemented by the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, as the VP nominee and the adoption of a conservative-friendly party platform – is clearly fueling the campaign.

“There has always been a passionate sense of need and urgency to defeat this president,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “But you also want to be excited about the ticket. I think with the selection of Paul Ryan, the adoption of the platform and that sense of urgency, we’re getting a confluence of factors that are really energizing people.”

Talk meaningfully about bipartisan compromise and you’ll receive irritated silence. Mention 9/11, freedom and Barack Hussein Obama in the same sentence and your likeness will be carved into Mt. Rushmore.

“This isn’t the time for middle-of-the-road politicians,” Cardenas said. “The only way Congress is going to move forward is if either party has the White House and a majority in both houses of Congress. Our focus is on a Republican majority.”

That much was apparent at a screening of Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, part of an RNC film series. During the screening, the audience cheered when the Gipper intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and was practically giddy when he said, “There is no substitute for victory.” The room was silent when the documentary – narrated by Newt Gingrich and his unblinking wife Calista – mentioned Reagan’s record of achieving across-the-aisle accords.

After the screening, I asked Gingrich what the bipartisan prospects were for a Romney administration. He echoed the aspirations of a clean Republican sweep in November.

“Look, if we win control of the Senate, he’ll be able to put together a majority coalition and there will be a handful of Democrats who will vote with him,” Gingrich said. “If that doesn’t happen, it’s much harder.”

But to energize enough voters to unseat Obama, the Republicans have been forced into maintaining a hard-line that appeals to the base while trying to expand far enough to mobilize moderates and independents.

One thing that was becoming readily apparent as I forged my way through convention week was a collective penchant for cognitive dissonance. “The Republican Party is not anti-immigration,” Alejandro Capote, a 20-year-old Florida delegate, told me. “We just support legal immigration.”

The fact that Capote had just finished telling me the harrowing story of how his father hand-built a raft in a failed effort to flee his native Cuba and immigrate – illegally – to the United States didn’t seem to register.

I received a similar response from Clarke Cooper, national executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay conservatives, when I asked him about the staunch position supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) written into the party’s official convention platform.

“While the platform language is abysmal,” Cooper said, “I was heartened to see the debate and the dialogue that occurred. I think it reflected the push-pull within our party on these issues. The trend is in our favor.”

Cooper rightfully pointed out that Log Cabin has earned an increasingly visible and substantive position within the Republican Party. Then again, the group is still understandably cautious. I was allowed to interview delegates attending a Log Cabin event at a posh restaurant but was forbidden from taking pictures.

In many ways, the eerie calm that follows a storm is worse than its wrath. All that’s left is to survey the damage. Room 423 at the Wyndham Tampa Westshore had been hit hard by the storm. The speeches had been given, messages delivered, facts massaged. The balloons had fallen. The confetti had flown. Now, another crossroads.

“So here we stand,” Romney had said. “Americans have a choice.”

NATHAN DINSDALE is a Portland-based writer and editor.

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