AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Friday that he will not attend the Republican National Convention, highlighting a deep rift within the state GOP that party members say will not heal after next week's unity gathering in Florida.
LePage issued a statement saying that instead of attending the Monday-Thursday convention, he'll focus on state business and spending time with his family.
The governor's decision came as the Republican National Convention's credentials committee determined that the election of 20 delegates supporting the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul violated party and parliamentary rules. In doing so, the committee assigned 10 of the delegates to mainstream state GOP members who challenged the Paul delegates' election and support presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
On Friday, LePage followed through on his promise this month not to attend the Tampa gathering unless the delegation elected during a raucous state convention in May is seated.
"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 his statement. "It is unfortunate that not all of these delegates will be seated.
"I am hopeful that we can put this behind us and focus on the real issues affecting our nation. Our nation's economy is struggling to recover and Governor Romney has put forward an agenda that will help us turn it around," LePage concluded.
But a deep division within the Maine GOP left by the delegate fight won't heal anytime soon, party activists said.
"I actually see an exodus of people leaving the party," said Matt McDonald, a Paul supporter who was elected as a delegate. Many, he predicted, will join the Libertarian Party.
While LePage has indicated his support for Romney, McDonald commended the governor as "a man of his word" for deciding to stay home. McDonald plans to leave for Tampa on Sunday so he can appeal his and other delegates' exclusion before the full Republican National Committee.
Erin Daly, a Paul delegate who paid her own way to travel from Maine to Tampa only to be purged, was tearful as she left the credentials committee room. But she had no plans to pack up and leave. "Of course I'm going to stick around," she said. "I owe it to my state."
Jan Staples, a national committeewoman from Maine who joined GOP activist Peter Cianchette in challenging the Paul delegates' election, commended the credentials committee for making what she sees as a fair decision.
And while Staples doesn't think the Maine delegate tussle will have an impact on the national convention, she believes it will have a profound impact on the Maine Republican Party.
"Do I think it's going to be a lasting problem back home? I do," said Staples, whose term as national committeewoman ends when the convention is over.
She predicted that Paul supporters will continue seeking party control by winning elections to local and county GOP posts and fears they will do so without strict adherence to party rules. Staples believes the Paul loyalists are out to restructure of the state Republican Party in preparation for a 2016 presidential run by Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Rand Paul is to give a prime-time convention speech next week.
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst in Tampa contributed to this report.