By James Oliphant
OXON HILL, Maryland (Reuters) – Reminders of former President Donald Trump’s towering influence over the Republican Party were everywhere at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend in Washington.
There were kiosks hawking Trump hats and shirts, attendees sporting “Make America Great Again” stickers and even a mock Oval Office where attendees could be photographed next to Trump’s picture.
The three-day conference illustrated the iron grip he holds over the right-wing, grassroots base of his party and how hard it could be for a challenger to deny Trump the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
At the same time, it remains an open question whether Trump’s appeal still extends beyond his hard-core loyalists. Public opinion polls showing many Republicans are looking for an alternative such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, believing they may offer a better chance of winning the White House.
Trump served as the closing speaker for the event on Saturday. “We are going to finish what we started,” he said. “We’re going to complete the mission.” The capacity crowd in the ballroom chanted “Four more years!”
While Trump and his supporters were holding forth at CPAC, DeSantis, who has not yet declared a presidential run, was busy burnishing his national profile and connecting with potential high-dollar campaign donors.
He spoke at Republican fundraisers in Houston and Dallas and is expected to give a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Sunday.
DeSantis also attended a gathering for Republican donors in Florida held by the anti-tax group Club for Growth to which Trump was not invited.
While he has spoken at past events, DeSantis skipped CPAC this time around. Still, his influence could be felt.
Multiple speakers talked about pushing back against “wokeness,” diversity and equity plans in education and transgender student athletes, key themes for DeSantis that have taken root among conservatives nationwide.
The event, however, was heavily weighted towards Trump. The list of speakers was packed with Trump supporters such as US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, longtime allies including his former campaign adviser Steve Bannon, and members of Trump’s family, who often received louder ovations than the officeholders who spoke.
Kari Lake, who last year lost her bid to become Arizona’s governor and who is an outspoken supporter of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud, was given a prime speaking slot, as was Jair Bolsonaro, the former right-wing president of Brazil.
Both complained their elections had been stolen and both were greeted with applause from attendees.
By contrast, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is also seeking the Republican nomination, received a polite, if tepid response from the crowd, as did former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another potential presidential candidate. Haley was met with chants of “Trump” in the hallway outside the ballroom where she gave her speech.
Haley and Pompeo raised the loudest cheers when they were detailing the accomplishments of the Trump administration.
In his remarks, Bannon maintained that Trump should be the Republican nominee, saying DeSantis and other potential challengers lacked experience. “We don’t have time for on-the-job training,” he said.
Trump and DeSantis both are scheduled in the coming days to visit Iowa, which holds the first Republican nominating contest next year.
SKIPPED BY MEMBERS OF CONGRESS
CPAC once was a premier gathering of the party’s Republicans in Washington but of late has become dominated by Trump and his supporters to the extent that it was skipped this year by most Republican members of Congress and the nation’s Republican governors. Many speakers spoke to a half-empty ballroom and overall attendance seemed noticeably lower than in years past.
Marleen Beck, 71, of Howard County, Maryland, said she would stand by Trump after voting for him twice. “Ron DeSantis is a good governor for Florida, but I don’t think he’s the person to run the country,” she said.
Beck said she was present for Trump’s speech in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the US Capitol and argued that he deserves no blame for the incident. Several attendees wore shirts memorializing Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by police inside the Capitol building.
Lisa Friedman, 54, of Colchester, Vermont, was selling Trump T-shirts in the exhibit hall and wore one herself that read: “Ultra MAGA.”
She said DeSantis should stay out of the race. “I think he should wait until next time around,” she said.
But Riley Kass, 24, of Cassopolis, Michigan, said he voted for Trump in 2020 but had an open mind about the upcoming primary. “I think competition is good,” Kass said, adding that he wished DeSantis had attended the conference.
J. Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman for Trump, said the show of support for Trump by rank-and-file Republicans at the event demonstrated why he will be a formidable candidate.
“These are the folks who are responsible for the blocking and tackling to win you elections, especially in the early primary states,” Gidley said.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)