OXON HILL, MARYLAND
Former President Donald Trump on Saturday framed the 2024 GOP primary as a fight between populist conservatives like himself and the self-interested Republican establishment, telling a gathering of national conservatives that either he wins the presidential election or the country will be lost.
“This is the final battle,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference near the nation’s capital, in what has traditionally been a major campaign stop for GOP candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination. “They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
Trump — whose speech reiterated the repeatedly disproven accusation that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — did not mention by name the man seen as his chief rival for the Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But he did criticize GOP officials who, he says, want to raise the Social Security retirement age and cut Medicare.
It’s a criticism he’s leveled before at DeSantis, accusing him of doing the bidding of big donors at the expense of the average GOP voters.
“We are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” Trump said. “We’re not going back to people who want to destroy our great Social Security system, even some in our party.
“I wonder who that might be,” he added.
DeSantis has said he doesn’t want to make any adjustments to Social Security.
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The former president’s appearance at CPAC capped what had been a Trump-friendly four days at the annual conference, where he remains visibly popular even as national polls show his support sagging. Trump was even introduced Saturday as the “next president” of the United States.
The conference’s straw poll of potential presidential candidates, which CPAC officials said Saturday included more than 2,000 attendees, found 62% of respondents would vote for Trump, compared to just 20% for DeSantis.
“Thank you for that beautiful straw poll,” Trump said. “That was a big win.”
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The survey is an imperfect measure of broader support within the GOP: Past winners of the straw poll include Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul, whose 2016 White House bid fizzled.
But there were plenty of signs of Trump’s support at CPAC throughout the four-day event, amid growing criticism that the event had become too closely associated with the former president. Trump’s son Donald Trump. Jr. and daugher-in-law Lara Trump spoke at CPAC on Friday, along with his former senior adviser, Steve Bannon.
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In the halls of the hotel hosting CPAC, many attendees could be seen wearing Trump clothing, including hats and sequined shirts bearing the former president’s name.
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DeSantis, whose new book was published this week, declined an invitation to CPAC, speaking instead Friday at a donor retreat hosted by the fiscal conservative group Club for Growth in Florida. He’ll travel to Iowa next week for a pair of events with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds,
Former Vice President Mike Pence also skipped CPAC.
Two candidates who did appear, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, received muted reactions to their speeches. After her speech, Haley was even jeered by Trump supporters chanting his name, as she took pictures with supporters in the hallways of the hotel.
Pompeo and Haley, combined, received less than 5% of the straw poll vote at CPAC.
In interviews, some Trump supporters praised DeSantis but urged him to reconsider a presidential campaign.
“I think he is a fantastic governor for the state of Florida,” said Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman from Georgia. “And if I were Florida, at the snail’s pace things get done here in Washington … I’d give him a third term and beg him to stay as governor.”
Florida governors can serve only two consecutive terms. Greene has endorsed Trump’s campaign.
Other GOP officials on hand were similarly diplomatic in their response.
“Obviously, everybody is appreciative of what President Trump has done and is doing,” said RJ May, a GOP state representative from South Carolina who attended CPAC this week. “But they’re also appreciative of what Governor DeSantis is doing in Florida.”
Many CPAC speakers unapologetically espoused fringe ideas and outright conspiracy theories, including characterizing Trump supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol in 2021 as “political prisoners” and suggesting that the 2020 election was stolen.
Still others on the main stage at CPAC embraced extreme rhetoric about the transgender community.
“Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely, the whole preposterous ideology, at every level,” Michael Knowles, a conservative media figure, told the CPAC audience on Saturday.
This story was originally published March 4, 2023, 7:18 PM.