A few things to watch at CPAC


Republicans are gathering in Orlando this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual event that allows grassroots activists, prominent commentators and lawmakers to rub elbows while discussing the present and future state of the GOP.

While the gabfest happens every year, this week’s conference is the first to take place after former President Trump left the White House, allowing possible 2024 presidential contenders to test their appeal to a base that remains in lockstep with the former president.

CPACs in the past few years have been lovefests for Trump, who used the event to launch his political career in 2011 and made several appearances while he was in the White House. This year is not expected to be any different – polls show Trump remains wildly popular with Republican voters, and he is set to give a keynote speech on Sunday, the conference’s final day.

Fellow speakers amount to a who’s who of prospective White House candidates, including Govs. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Ron DeSantis of Florida; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.).

Here are five things to watch at this week’s CPAC gathering.

What will Trump say?

Trump’s Sunday speech will mark his reemergence onto the political scene and will be his first appearance in front of the GOP faithful since leaving office. Since President Biden’s inauguration in January, he has only appeared on Fox News and other friendly outlets to praise the late conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and golfer Tiger Woods, who was seriously injured in a recent car accident.

Sources have already forecasted that Trump will go on the offensive against President Biden during his Sunday night speech, as well as tease a 2024 bid of his own. A person familiar with the speech told The Hill that Trump is set to deliver a blistering admonition of the first five weeks of Biden’s presidency, including his handling of immigration policy and his posture toward China, among other things.

According to Fox News, Trump is expected to walk “right up to the line of announcing another campaign,” without making it official.

But Trump is also known to stray from his prepared remarks when speaking in front of supportive crowds, and a friendly audience could provide him with a platform to make good on his promise to go after Republicans he deems insufficiently loyal.

“He should go out and make an argument that unites Republicans around why it's important to fight Biden's agenda and make a full-throated defense of the accomplishments that Biden is trying to undo,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant.

“I think that would help Republicans get us focused on the tasks at hand rather than refighting fights from last four years and turn the page on an incredibly unpleasant chapter and both Republican and American history. That's what I hope he does,” Conant said.

But Conant added that Trump has a tendency to go after members of his own party.

“Based on the last five years, we should expect Trump to use CPAC to settle some scores and try to try to shape the future of the party in his own image,” he said.

By how much will Trump win the straw poll?

Ever year CPAC takes a straw poll of its attendees. The survey is often taken as a signal of where the conservative base is and could indicate how closely the grassroots wants to embrace Trump.

While it is still unclear who will appear on the poll, Trump is expected to win it and – if it’s at all close to other polls – by a strong margin.

A January Gallup poll conducted mostly after the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill found that Trump had an 88 percent approval rating among Republicans.

“If he doesn't win it with 90 plus percent, that shows a real crack in his foundation,” Conant said.

Who else might emerge as a star?

CPAC has long been a launching pad for lawmakers’ careers, including presidential runs, given the exposure it provides to the Republican grassroots.

The conference’s tradition of fueling presidential bids goes back to former President Ronald Reagan, who, as the governor of California, made an appearance at the conference in 1974 — six years before he became president.

Trump started making appearances at the gathering in 2011, using his speeches to burnish his conservative bona fides.

However, it’s unclear if any potential 2024 candidate can have anywhere near as much sway among the base as Trump.

“Trump will block out the ability for really anyone else to get attention. There will be focus on the other folks who are looking at running, and what they're going to say, but we basically know what they're all going to say. They're going to say that Trump is amazing and they were there every step of the way for Trump,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

“Yes, there will be some attention paid to what a Mike Pompeo or a Ted Cruz says in a speech given that they're looking at running or, you know, Kristi Noem, or whatever. But this will be a Trump-dominated event.”

Will CPAC avoid unwanted headlines?

While always a popular event with conservatives, CPAC has had to grapple with negative headlines in recent years, including this year’s affair.

It was revealed that actor Sacha Baron Cohen snuck into CPAC last year dressed as Trump as part of his latest “Borat” film, and a conservative blogger was kicked out of the 2019 event.

CPAC has already disinvited a speaker from this year’s conference after past anti-Semitic remarks resurfaced. Among the comments made by Young Pharoah, an online commentator who was initially scheduled to sit on a guest panel at the conference on Sunday afternoon, include those calling Jewish people “thieving” and “fake” and blaming them for “pedophilia.”

“We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization,” CPAC tweeted on Monday. “The individual will not be participating at our conference.”

It’s unclear if CPAC will be able to avoid further bad headlines, though Conant said CPAC could still benefit even if there are.

“I think all press is good press for something like CPAC. It thrives off having media attention and being a place that makes news,” he said, adding that the event will be “easier to control” in Orlando rather than its usual setting of the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Will there be any signs of division?

Unlikely.

Divisions briefly opened earlier this week when Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) disagreed over whether Trump should speak at CPAC.

However, Cheney and other prominent Republican critics of Trump won’t be at the event, and the speakers who will are anticipated to remain in lockstep with the former president, especially those with eyes on 2024.

“They may try and find ways to distinguish themselves from the other people who are looking to run, but they're not going to say anything critical of Trump. They're all running not just to be the nominee in four years or three years or whatever, but they're running to basically take his mantle,” said Heye. “And so, they will be lavish in their praise for him.”

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