ST. CHARLES, Mo. — On the day Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race, it was Ron Paul — not presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney — who stole the show at the do-over Republican caucus in one of Missouri's largest and most conservative counties.
St. Charles County Republicans reconvened Tuesday, weeks after the initial caucus was canceled amid rules disputes and claims of favoritism. This time, things went more smoothly at the gathering of about 900 voters inside the St. Charles Convention Center. There were plenty of disagreements, some jeering, some booing, some heated comments. But unlike the March 17 caucus, the event never dissolved into chaos.
One thing remained the same: Despite his front-runner status, Romney still failed to generate much support. Instead, slates of Paul supporters were picked for 2nd and 3rd District congressional caucuses later this month (the county straddles the two districts) and the statewide GOP convention in June. Even a late attempt by Santorum and Romney supporters to align fell short of topping Paul.
St. Charles County is Missouri's third largest, behind only St. Louis and Jackson counties. And it is solidly Republican, making its caucus one of the most important in the state. But the county's first attempt at a caucus turned ugly.
Paul and Romney supporters were upset at the March 17 caucus over county GOP Chairman Eugene Dokes' decision to recognize only one nomination for caucus chairman, a Santorum supporter. Some at the original caucus also were upset when St. Charles County organizers banned the use of audio and video recording devices. Two Paul supporters were arrested when they were ordered to leave but refused to do so.
But the dynamics of the race have changed dramatically since mid-March, the most dramatic turn coming just hours before Tuesday's caucus when Santorum announced he was suspending his campaign.
It was clear early that the caucus was going Paul's way when Brent Stafford was elected chairman. He was one of the Paul supporters arrested March 17.
Paul supporters made it clear that they welcomed Santorum people to their side. Outside the convention center, 29-year-old Brandon Kelly marched with a sign supporting Paul that read, "Santorum Supporters Welcome."
Kelly said Paul supporters still believe he can overtake Romney for the nomination because of Paul's strength in caucuses.
"He's not giving up," Kelly said. "We have the majority. The media has it wrong. I think he's being undercounted in terms of delegates."
The do-over caucus was part of what has been a bizarre political year in Missouri. The state hosted a presidential primary in February in which Santorum was the overwhelming winner — but it didn't count. It was little more than a straw poll.
The state is choosing most of its 52 delegates for the national convention in Tampa through the caucus system. The St. Charles County caucus was the last of Missouri's nearly 140 local caucuses.
Nancy Lares, 67, of Lake St. Louis, wore a Santorum sticker and said she was disappointed he left the race, but she stands behind her party.
"I will support the Republican candidate whoever it is, because we have to defeat Barack Obama," Lares said.