Former President Donald Trump cast himself Saturday as the only Republican candidate who can build on his White House legacy but shied away from directly critiquing his potential rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Trump, giving the headlining address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, told a cheering crowd that he was engaged in his “final battle” as he tries to return to the White House.
“We are going to finish what we started,” he said. “We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory.”
Though DeSantis, seen as Trump’s biggest potential rival, is frequently a subject of name-calling and other attacks in Trump’s social media posts and in interviews, he wasn’t mentioned directly in Trump’s address before conservative activists, who earlier in the day applauded when an old video clip of the Florida governor was shown in a montage.
While CPAC was once a must-stop for candidates mulling Republican presidential runs, DeSantis and other major likely contenders skipped this year’s gathering amid scandal and as the group has increasingly become aligned with Trump.
The former president’s enduring popularity with this segment of voters was on display throughout the conference this week. Some attendees wore Trump-themed outfits, with “MAGA” hats and sequined jackets.
Members of his family and his presidential administration were swarmed like celebrities in the hallways and dominated the list of speakers. The handful of other potential and declared candidates not named Trump who spoke received only tepid applause.
And the annual CPAC straw poll, an unscientific survey of attendees, found Trump the top choice to be the party’s nominee, with 62% support, trailed by DeSantis at 20% and businessman Perry Johnson, who announced his long shot bid at the conference, with 5%.
Nearly all — 95% of respondents — said they approved of Trump’s performance as president.
Ahead of his speech, Trump told reporters that he would continue his third presidential campaign even if indicted. He is under investigation by prosecutors probing his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia and by the U.S. Justice Department, as well as his handling of classified documents, among other issues.
He condemned all the probes as politically motivated and vowed that criminal charges wouldn’t deter him.
“Oh, absolutely, I won’t even think about leaving,” he told reporters, adding that “probably, it’ll enhance my numbers, but it’s a very bad thing for America. It’s very bad for the country.”
“This is an audience that supports President Trump,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the No. 3 House Republican, who endorsed Trump days before he officially launched his 2024 campaign.
The only member of House leadership to attend the conference, Stefanik told The Associated Press that Trump continued to be the party’s leader.
“President Trump is in a very strong position and I think he will be the Republican nominee,” she said.
While Trump did not launch broadsides against his potential challengers for the White House, many of whom were pitching themselves to conservative donors near his Florida home this week, he did repeatedly criticize the old guard of the Republican Party, which is eager to move past him.
“We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neo-cons, globalists, open borders zealots and fools. But we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush,” he said.
He took only a veiled jab at DeSantis, calling out those who have proposed raising the age for Social Security or privatizing Medicare — positions DeSantis has expressed support for in the past, but has since abandoned. “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans,” DeSantis recently said.
Trump told the crowd, “If that’s their original thought, that’s what they always come back to.”
Trump threaded his speech with grievances related to his term in office and outlined his agenda for a second, including restrictions on gender-affirming care and transgender athletes, which drew some of the strongest applause from the room and was a recurrent theme in speeches at the four-day conference.
While many top Republicans steered clear of the conference, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a potential candidate, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who declared her candidacy last month, both spoke Friday and made shrouded critiques of Trump. Their refusal to call him out by name underscored the risks faced by challengers looking to offer an alternative in a party in which Trump remains the dominant force.
“There is no one in that field I want as my president other than Donald J. Trump,” said Waverly Woods, a Republican activist and marketer from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who said she likes DeSantis but that Trump has first claim on the hearts of many at the conference.
That includes Woods’ sometimes partner in local GOP races, Kim Shourds, whose car bears a “TRUMP WON” license plate.
DeSantis? She likes him, she said, but not enough. She wants the governor to sit down “and let my man come in and run this country,” Shourds said.
But not everyone at CPAC was on board.
E. Payne Kilbourn, a retired Navy submarine captain from Neavitt, Maryland, who now writes and advocates for carbon dioxide, said he was “very, very” happy with Trump’s presidency, but now thinks it’s time for the party to move on.
“I think Donald Trump’s just too toxic for most of the country,” said Kilbourn, 69, an independent who votes for Republicans in general elections and wishes Trump would “bow out and just be the guy behind the scenes.”
Strategically, he sees DeSantis as better positioned to eventually win the White House.
“I think he would have a better chance of getting elected,” he said.
This story was originally published March 4, 2023, 7:12 PM.