WASHINGTON The 20 Ron Paul supporters hoping to represent Maine as delegates to the Republican National Convention lost their appeal Friday, prompting Gov. Paul LePage to skip next week’s event and heightening tensions within the Maine GOP.

“It is certainly going to come back on the party, and it is unfortunate,” said Stavros Mendros, a Paul supporter who is in Tampa as part of Maine’s convention delegation.

After weeks of discussion, members of the Republican National Committee voted overwhelmingly to deny seats to 10 pro-Paul delegates and fill them with 10 Mainers expected to support Mitt Romney.

The other four delegates in Maine’s 24-member delegation were not contested and are expected to support Romney.

On Friday, the RNC’s Credentials Committee agreed with an earlier conclusion that Maine’s delegate-selection process was tainted by illegal votes and parliamentary violations. But many of the now-unseated Paul delegates and alternates are already in Tampa or are on their way south, resulting in two separate delegations from Maine.

Now, however, half of the Paul supporters will be spectators rather than participants.

“A lot of them are new to the party, they are young and have spent a lot of money to come down here. And now they can’t get seated,” said Brent Tweed, chairman of the Maine delegation and a Paul supporter.

The fight over Maine’s delegates was part of a larger debate inside the RNC over how to accommodate Paul and his supporters at what is essentially a unity rally for Romney. A Texas congressman known for his libertarian views, Paul has a fraction of the delegates amassed by Romney.

Hayes Gahagan, chairman of the Aroostook County Republican Committee, was among the new Maine delegates making plans for Tampa. Although his county caucus went for Paul, Gahagan said delegates supporting the congressman should play by the rules set forth by the RNC and focus on the “prime directive” of defeating President Obama.

“We need to unify and we should accept this compromise,” Gahagan said. “Send 10 Paul delegates, send 10 Romney delegates and let’s get on with this convention and beat Barack Obama.”

The RNC’s decision to split the Maine delegation had immediate political repercussions, however.

LePage announced Friday morning that he will skip the convention due to the delegates dispute, even though the governor has said he supports Romney. LePage said he would, instead, pass the week focusing on “state business and spending some time with family.”

“I made it clear, when the challenge was issued, that I felt the Maine delegates selected at the Maine convention should be seated in Tampa,” LePage said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that not all of these delegates will be seated.”

Two Maine Republicans, Jan Staples and Peter Cianchette, had filed a formal challenge with the RNC against the 20 delegates, alleging a long list of procedural violations at May’s state GOP convention.

William McGinley, a lawyer arguing on behalf of the delegate swap compromise, told RNC Credentials Committee members Friday that the Maine convention was riddled with problems, including lax floor security and dubious identification of participants.

McGinley said Paul’s supporters “shouldn’t be able to benefit from this chaos,” according to The Associated Press.

But John Logan Jones, an elected Paul delegate from Falmouth who lost his seat, said the decision was all about politics, not procedure. The experience cost Romney his vote, Jones said.

“It was pretty clear that they didn’t care about the rules,” Jones said after the meeting. “If it were a court of law, this whole thing would have been thrown out. But it wasn’t a court of law. It was a kangaroo court.”

Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the RNC, said the process was fair and thorough.

“Today, the Credentials Committee accepted the RNC Contest Committee report that sought input from both parties to reach a final delegation for Maine,” Kukowski wrote in an email. “All of the contests went through the proper process and both parties gave their input in the final decision.”

With such small numbers, Paul supporters in Tampa are unlikely to cause much of a fuss on the convention floor, although Maine’s Paul delegation is planning a “Hail Mary” attempt Monday to re-seat all 20 original delegates.

RNC officials plan to show a tribute video about Paul and gave his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a speaking role at the convention — both steps intended to pacify Paul supporters.

But Maine Republicans said the tussle over the state’s delegates probably won’t end in Tampa.

Tweed, who was among the 10 Paul supporters to keep his seat as a delegate, said the Paul contingent felt cheated and abused. Echoing comments made by others, Tweed suggested that some people have been trying to drive out the vocal, libertarian-minded wing of the Maine GOP.

“I think they have miscalculated,” Tweed said. “This is only going to strengthen our resolve. We are going to get more active in the local Republican committees and try to change the state Republican Party.”

Pete “The Carpenter” Harring, founder of the Maine Tea Party organization, said he still planned to board a plane for Florida on Saturday morning even though his delegate seat was given to someone else. He also hinted that he wouldn’t go away, adding he wasn’t surprised with the people selected to replace the Paul delegates.

“They obviously perceive me as a threat” to the Republican status quo, he said. “And that’s a good thing, because I guess I can be considered a threat.”

LePage, meanwhile, reiterated his support for Romney despite the fight over delegates in Maine.

“I am hopeful that we can put this behind us and focus on the real issues affecting our nation,” LePage said. “Our nation’s economy is struggling to recover and Gov. Romney has put forward an agenda that will help us turn it around.”

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com