Reminders of former US President Donald Trump’s massive influence over the Republican Party were all over the place this weekend at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington, DC.
There were kiosks selling Trump hats and shirts, attendees wearing “Make America Great Again” stickers, and even a mock Oval Office where attendees could be photographed next to Trump’s photo.
The three-day conference illustrated the iron grip he has on his party’s right-wing base and how difficult it can be for a challenger to deny Trump the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
At the same time, it remains an open question whether Trump’s appeal still extends beyond his loyalists. Polls show that many Republicans are looking for an alternative, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, believing they offer a better chance of winning the White House.
Trump was the closing speaker of the event on Saturday. “We are going to finish what we started,” he said. “We’re going to complete the mission.” The packed audience in the ballroom chanted, “Four more years!”.
While Trump and his supporters held out at CPAC, DeSantis, who has not yet announced a presidential run, has been busy brushing up his national profile and reaching out to potential high-dollar campaign donors.
He spoke at Republican fundraisers in Houston and Dallas and is expected to deliver a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Sunday.
DeSantis also attended a meeting for Republican donors in Florida held by the anti-tax group Club for Growth, to which Trump was not invited.
Although he has spoken at previous events, DeSantis skipped CPAC this time. Still, his influence was palpable.
Multiple speakers spoke of pushing back “wake up,” plans for diversity and equality in education and transgender student-athletes, key issues for DeSantis that have taken root among conservatives across the country.
However, the event was weighted heavily towards Trump. The list of speakers was full of Trump supporters such as U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, old allies including his former campaign adviser Steve Bannon, and members of Trump’s family, who often received louder ovations than the office bearers who spoke.
Kari Lake, who lost her bid to run for governor of Arizona last year and is an outspoken supporter of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud, was given a first speaking appearance, as was Jair Bolsonaro, the former far-right president. from Brazil.
Both complained that their elections had been stolen and both were greeted with applause from those in attendance.
In contrast, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was also seeking the Republican nomination, received a polite if lukewarm response from the crowd, as did former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another potential presidential candidate. Haley was greeted with chants of “Trump” in the hallway outside the ballroom where she gave her speech.
Haley and Pompeo cheered the loudest as they described the achievements of the Trump administration.
In his remarks, Bannon argued that Trump should be the Republican nominee, and said DeSantis and other potential challengers had no experience. “We don’t have time for on-the-job training,” he said.
Trump and DeSantiare will visit Iowa in the coming days, where the first Republican nominating contest will be held next year.
CPAC was once a premier gathering of the party’s Republicans in Washington, D.C., but in recent times has become so dominated by Trump and his supporters that it was skipped this year by most Republican members of Congress and the country’s Republican governors . Many speakers spoke to a half-empty ballroom, and attendance generally seemed noticeably lower than in years past.
Marleen Beck, 71, of Howard County, Maryland, said she would support Trump after voting for him twice. “Ron DeSantis is a good governor of Florida, but I don’t think he’s the person to run the country,” she said.
Beck said she was present at Trump’s speech in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, claiming he deserves no blame for the incident. Several in attendance wore shirts in memory of Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by police at the Capitol.
Lisa Friedman, 54, of Colchester, Vermont, sold Trump T-shirts in the exhibit hall and wore one herself that read, “Ultra MAGA.”
She told DeSantis to stay out of the race. “I think he should wait until next time,” she said.
But Riley Kass, 24, of Cassopolis, Michigan, said he voted for Trump in 2020 but was open to the upcoming primary. “I think competition is good,” Kass said, adding that he wished DeSantis had attended the conference.
Hogan Gidley, a former Trump White House spokesman, said the show of support for Trump by mainstream Republicans at the event showed why he will be a formidable candidate.
“These are the people responsible for blocking and cracking down on winning elections, especially in the early primary states,” Gidley said.