By: Steve Herman
WASHINGTON — Two competing, prominent events have put on display a cleaving of American conservatives ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Former President Donald Trump closed out the annual Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, which for years has been a must-attend event for the right wing of the Republican Party. But many party loyalists, including big campaign contributors, instead attended a rival gathering in Florida.
“In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution,” Trump told the CPAC attendees shortly after he captured the conference’s Saturday evening straw poll (unofficial balloting among event registrants) for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
In the survey, Trump trounced runner-up Ron DeSantis, the governor of the southern U.S. state of Florida, 62% to 20%. It was the fifth consecutive time Trump has won the CPAC straw poll.
Trump, whose speech lasted an hour and 42 minutes, revisited familiar grievances aired at his campaign rallies and repeated the false claim he won the 2020 presidential election. He made no mention of any other declared or expected Republican presidential candidates, instead heaping criticism on the Democrat who defeated him in the 2020 presidential election.
“Joe Biden is leading us into oblivion,” Trump said, adding, “We’re going to have World War III if something doesn’t happen fast.”
“I am the only candidate who can make this promise,” he said. “I will prevent World War III.”
Trump also vowed, if elected again, that he would settle Russia’s war on Ukraine before he arrived back in the Oval Office.
Haley speaks at both events
The former president’s only significant, declared primary challenger so far, his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was on the CPAC stage the previous day. Haley also spoke at the rival event, the four-day gathering of the Club for Growth, a group focused on an anti-tax agenda.
“I know there’s a Republican candidate out there you did not invite to this conference,” she told those at the Palm Beach, Florida, event. “I appreciate being one you did invite.”
Trump was not invited to the Club for Growth retreat, held at a luxury hotel just 5 kilometers north up Ocean Boulevard from his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Florida Governor DeSantis was among the top speakers with dozens of major Republican Party donors attending. Among those in Palm Beach for the conference were several potential presidential candidates: former Vice President Mike Pence; Tim Scott, a U.S. senator from South Carolina; and Chris Sununu, the governor of the Northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire.
On Tuesday, Trump criticized the conservative, economy-focused group, writing in a Truth Social post the “Club for NO Growth is an insignificant group of Globalists” that would only attract the stragglers in next year’s Republican primary.
Another potential presidential prospect from the Republican Party who spoke at CPAC was Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Attendees described the reception to remarks at CPAC by Pompeo and Haley as tepid. Haley was confronted by chants for Trump as she departed the ballroom.
Pompeo took a subtle dig at Trump during his speech, indirectly blaming his former boss for Republican losses in the 2022 midterm elections, combined with the 2020 presidential loss, creating what he called a “crisis in conservatism.”
“We need a party, a conservative party, that we can be proud to call home again, rooted in our founding ideas, led by people of real character, of competence and commitment to the mission that brought you all here today,” he said.
'A vehicle for Trump'
In public remarks so far, prominent Republicans, including those expected to challenge Trump for the party’s presidential nomination, have refrained from directly criticizing the former president, a reflection of the power he wields over the party rank and file.
Conservatives were mostly united around Trump when he unsuccessfully ran for reelection in 2020. Some recent polls show the former president retaining about 50% support among Republicans ahead of next year’s election.
CPAC has turned into the “Donald Trump Family Variety Hour,” said CNN’s conservative commentator Sarah Elizabeth Cupp. “It’s become a vehicle for Trump and Trumpism” and no longer “a stop on way to becoming president.”
Prominent neo-conservative writer Bill Kristol, who served in the administrations of two Republican presidents, was not impressed by either the CPAC or Club for Growth events.
“Competition is a good thing. It leads to better products and choices except when it’s a race to the bottom,” Kristol told VOA. “And it looks like Trump versus DeSantis is more of a race to the bottom than a healthy contest which will improve the choice.” (KB/VOA)
(Steve Herman, formerly White House Bureau Chief, is now VOA's Chief National Correspondent)