(Bloomberg) — Vendors are still hawking “Trump 2024” flags and “Let’s Go Brandon” t-shirts. But at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this year, the crowds are smaller, the marquee speakers are fewer and the “Make America Great Again” vibe is suddenly in doubt.
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“I love Donald Trump, no question about it. Big supporter. I got a Trump sign on my lawn just to aggravate my neighbors,” said Frank Mongillo, a New Haven, Connecticut, physician who has attended more than 10 CPACs.
Nearby, conference-goers could pick up Ginger Betty Bakery’s $8 gingerbread Trump-shaped cookies while browsing booths set up by groups including the John Birch Society and Moms For America.
“But if somebody could put a better campaign up, we have to win,” Mongillo added.
The former president credits the conference — which returned this week to National Harbor, in suburban Maryland just outside Washington, for the first time since the pandemic — with helping to 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 fervent and far-right voters.
Trump is the featured speaker at CPAC on Saturday, in what will be only his second return to the city he derides as “the swamp” since he left office. He’s long enjoyed adulation by the crowd at the conference, ultra-conservatives who share (or have adopted) his nationalist approach to the world, his antipathy for Democrats and his predilection for conspiracies, including his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged.
Yet polls indicate that many Republican voters want an alternative to the former president — someone like, say, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who shares most of Trump’s positions but is more likely to win a general election against President Joe Biden.
The former president will likely again win the CPAC straw poll of its participants’ preference for the GOP nominee in the 2024 presidential election, but the performance of his challengers — especially DeSantis — will be closely watched.
“The voters are still kicking the tires right now,” said GOP pollster John McLaughlin, a CPAC board member who runs the straw poll and has done surveys for Trump’s campaigns. “They have confidence in Trump, they have confidence in his policies. It’s just like what happened eight years ago: Now you’ve got 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 White House bid, was also invited but is not attending.
DeSantis has shied away from confronting Trump directly and instead is doing a book tour and other events this week, including a donor retreat for the conservative Club for Growth in Florida with other potential 2024 candidates but not Trump. The anti-tax group has signaled it wants to move on from the former president.
Former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and anti-ESG crusader Vivek Ramaswamy, the only two announced challengers to Trump so far, are both scheduled to appear at CPAC. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who is also considering a 2024 run, is expected to speak as well, 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’ won’t be going to CPAC is because the crowds have no interest in anything they have to say.”
At a replica of Trump’s Oval Office at the conference, fans took pictures of themselves sitting behind the Resolute Desk and hugging the American flag, as Trump famously once did at CPAC.
Melissa LoCurto, 52, a real estate broker from Long Island wearing an American flag scarf and a Trump pin, said she thinks DeSantis will be a good leader in the future but that only Trump can “get us out of this mess.” She’s attending every fourth CPAC.
“I don’t care about the tweets, it’s about politics,” 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 controversially been visiting the US since Dec. 30 after losing reelection. CPAC participants are partial towards nationalist foreign leaders. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed the group in Dallas last year to rousing applause.
Some Republican strategists say CPAC has lost its luster and significance in recent years as Trump ascended and more establishment GOP leaders stopped attending. Additionally, Matt Schlapp, the longtime CPAC chairman, faces a civil lawsuit from a staffer on Herschel Walker’s US Senate campaign in Georgia last year who accuses Schlapp of groping him. Schlapp has denied the allegations.
“It’s a Star Trek convention, and it’s sort of been that for a while,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said. Like fans of the TV series, who dress as their favorite characters, many CPAC attendees wear red, white and blue clothing with Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats.
“I don’t think it’s really been that important for several years,” Heye said.
Barometer of Support
CPAC officials called such slights “disingenuous” and touted a “jam-packed” schedule of speakers clamoring to appear.
Trump credits CPAC for helping to catapult him into the White House. He was a favorite speaker at the event for years before becoming president, often teasing the audience with hints that he would run. He said in a video last month announcing his appearance that he would be coming “right back where I started this whole thing.”
Ronald Solomon, president of The MAGA Mall, a wholesaler and online retailer of mostly Trump-themed hats and other merchandise and a mainstay at CPAC, said sales of Trump gear fell off after the midterm election but have since picked up. Soloman said he also produces DeSantis merchandise but that it’s outsold by Trump swag more than 8-to-1.
Still, political observers — as well as the former president’s opponents — will be watching for any hint of slippage in Trump’s support at the conference, and the straw poll will be a prime barometer.
The former president had an approval rating of 99% and was the choice of 69% of attendees at CPAC in Dallas last August, little changed from the 70% he received in the poll during the 2021 Dallas CPAC. He drew 59% support in a CPAC straw poll in February 2022 in Orlando.
If the Florida governor makes significant inroads in this weekend’s poll, despite snubbing the conference, the result could prove embarrassing for Trump.
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