(Bloomberg) — Vendors are still selling “Trump 2024” flags and “Let’s Go Brandon” t-shirts. But at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the crowds are smaller, there are fewer keynote speakers and the “Make America Great Again” vibe suddenly becomes questionable.
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“I love Donald Trump, no doubt about that. Large trailer. I put a Trump sign on my lawn to annoy my neighbors,” said Frank Mongillo, a physician from New Haven, Connecticut, who has visited more than 10 CPACs.
Nearby, conference attendees could pick up Ginger Betty Bakery’s $8 gingerbread Trump-shaped cookies while browsing booths set up by groups like the John Birch Society and Moms For America.
“But if someone can put on a better campaign, we should win,” Mongillo added.
The former president credits the conference — which this week returned to National Harbor, in suburban Maryland just outside Washington for the first time since the pandemic since the pandemic — for helping launch his political career. But with his 2024 bid already languishing and Republican challengers circling, Trump faces a test of his standing with the GOP’s most staunch and far-right voters.
Trump is the keynote speaker at CPAC on Saturday, in what will be only his second return to the city he has derided as “the swamp” since leaving office. He has long been praised by the conference crowd, ultra-conservatives who share (or have adopted) his nationalistic approach to the world, his antipathy for Democrats, and his penchant for conspiracy theories, including his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged.
Still, polls show that many Republican voters want an alternative to the former president — someone like, say, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who shares most of Trump’s views but is more likely to win a general election against President Joe Biden to win.
The former president is likely to win the CPAC straw poll again on his contestants’ preference for the GOP nominee in the 2024 presidential election, but the performance of his challengers — especially DeSantis — will be closely watched.
“Voters are still kicking the tires right now,” said GOP pollster John McLaughlin, a CPAC board member who leads the straw poll and has conducted surveys for Trump’s campaigns. “They have faith in Trump, they have faith in his policies. It’s like what happened eight years ago: now you have to go out and ask for their vote.”
Star of the show
Trump will have the CPAC spotlight largely to himself. DeSantis, who gave a rousing speech at the event last year when it was staged in Florida, was invited this year but is not scheduled to attend. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is considering a bid for the White House, was also invited but is not in attendance.
DeSantis shied away from directly confronting Trump and is instead doing a book tour and other events this week, including a donor retreat for Florida’s conservative Club for Growth with other potential 2024 candidates, but not Trump. The anti-tax group has indicated that it wants to move away from the former president.
Former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley and anti-ESG crusader Vivek Ramaswamy, Trump’s only two announced challengers to date, will both appear on CPAC. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who is also considering a 2024 run, is also expected to speak, but other potential 2024 candidates are not on the agenda.
Trump said in a post on his social media platform on Thursday that “the only reason certain ‘candidates’ don’t go to CPAC is because the public has no interest in what they have to say.”
At a replica of Trump’s Oval Office at the conference, fans snapped photos of themselves sitting behind the Resolute Desk and hugging the American flag, as Trump once did at CPAC.
Melissa LoCurto, 52, a Long Island real estate agent wearing an American flag scarf and a Trump pin, said she thinks DeSantis will be a good leader going forward, but only Trump will “get us out of this mess.” can get’. She is going to her fourth CPAC.
“I don’t care about the tweets, it’s about policy,” LoCurto said, referring to criticism of Trump’s use of social media.
Other scheduled speakers this year include former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been controversially visiting the US since December 30 after losing his re-election bid. CPAC participants are partial to nationalist foreign leaders. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed the group in Dallas last year to thunderous applause.
Some Republican strategists say CPAC has lost its luster and significance in recent years as Trump ascended and more established GOP leaders were no longer present. In addition, longtime CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp is facing a civil lawsuit from a Herschel Walker U.S. Senate campaign staffer in Georgia last year who accuses Schlapp of groping him. Schlapp has denied the allegations.
“It’s a Star Trek convention, and it has been for a while,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said. Like fans of the TV series who dress up as their favorite characters, many CPAC attendees wear red, white, and blue attire with Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats.
“I don’t think it’s been that important for years,” said Heye.
Barometer of support
CPAC officials called such disdain “insincere” and praised an “overcrowded” schedule of speakers eager to show up.
Trump credits CPAC for helping catapult him into the White House. He was a favorite speaker at the event for many years before he became president, often teasing the audience with hints he would drop. He said in a video last month announcing his performance that he was “coming back to where I started this whole thing.”
Ronald Solomon, president of The MAGA Mall, a wholesale and online retailer of mostly hats and other Trump-themed merchandise and a mainstay at CPAC, said sales of Trump gear declined after the midterm elections but have since risen. Soloman said he also produces DeSantis merchandise, but it’s sold more than 8-to-1 by Trump swag.
Still, political observers — as well as the former president’s opponents — will be on the lookout for any hint of slippage in Trump’s support at the conference, and the straw poll will be an excellent barometer.
The former president had a 99% approval rating and was the 69% choice of attendees at CPAC in Dallas last August, little changed from the 70% he received in the poll at the 2021 Dallas CPAC. He got 59 % support in a February 2022 CPAC straw poll in Orlando.
If Florida’s governor makes significant progress in this weekend’s poll despite disapproving of the conference, the result could embarrass Trump.
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