The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) made clear that President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump tears into Biden as he moves toward 2024 campaign Former Trump national security adviser condemns Putin at CPAC GOP senator dodges question over whether Trump should condemn Putin MORE remains the single-most influential figure among the GOP’s grassroots.
But the three-day gathering, which wrapped up on Sunday in Orlando, Fla., also showcased the growing star power of Republican leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisTrump tears into Biden as he moves toward 2024 campaign Nikki Haley spikes the gauntlet at the feet of China — and the 2024 GOP field DeSantis gets rock star treatment at CPAC MORE and the conservative movement’s continued fixation on culture war issues ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Here are five takeaways from this year’s CPAC:
Trump is still the star of the show
If there was ever any doubt about Trump’s influence over the conservative base of the Republican Party, CPAC put it to rest.
Nearly 15 months after losing his 2020 reelection bid, the former president still dominated the conference; red “Make America Great Again” hats speckled the crowds, vendors sold “Trump 2024” merchandise and attendees repeatedly expressed a desire to see the former president mount another bid for the White House in 2024.
That was confirmed on Sunday with the release of the results of CPAC’s 2024 presidential straw poll, which showed Trump has the heavy favorite among attendees to win the GOP nod. Fifty-nine percent said they would vote for Trump in a hypothetical primary that included more than a dozen prospective candidates.
The straw poll also found that, if Trump ran for president again in 2024, 85 percent of CPAC attendees would support him, including 72 percent who said they would “strongly” back him.
DeSantis is a force to be reckoned with
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly dismissed questions about a potential 2024 presidential bid, saying that he’s focused only on his job as governor and winning reelection this year.
Still, CPAC spotlighted his growing star power within the conservative movement. His speech at the conference on Thursday drew one of the biggest crowds of the entire gathering and attendees repeatedly pointed to him as a potential successor to Trump, even if they remain dead set on supporting the former president again in 2024.
Sunday’s straw poll also demonstrated DeSantis’s popularity among the conservative grassroots. While Trump led by a wide margin in a hypothetical primary contest, DeSantis finished in a strong second place, scoring 28 percent support, making him the only would-be candidate not named Trump to notch double-digit backing.
And in the event that Trump doesn’t run again in 2024, DeSantis would be the heavy favorite for the GOP nod. Without Trump on the ballot, 61 percent of those polled said they would support DeSantis.
The 2024 Republican presidential sweepstakes is well underway
Trump may have stolen the show on Saturday, but CPAC still drew a long list of prospective White House hopefuls, all of whom sought to stake out their own lane.
For South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemDeSantis gets rock star treatment at CPAC Noem: Biden should resign if he doesn’t take stronger action against Russia Watch live: Coverage from Day 2 of CPAC ’22 MORE, who addressed the conference on Friday, it was a call for lifting energy regulations. Former Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoDeSantis gets rock star treatment at CPAC Noem: Biden should resign if he doesn’t take stronger action against Russia Watch live: Coverage from Day 2 of CPAC ’22 MORE, meanwhile, spent a large portion of his speech railing against what he described as China’s creeping influence around the world. DeSantis used his speech to bolster his brand as a bulwark against a so-called “biomedical security state.”
The speeches collectively indicated that the early jockeying for the 2024 Republican presidential nod is already underway.
Still, it was clear that the would-be candidates are walking a fine line. None want to step on Trump’s toes, given that he’s considering another presidential bid in 2024, and almost all of them paid tribute to the former president in their remarks.
“We have some fantastic fighters, like President Donald Trump,” Noem said. “But he’s not alone. The American people are on our side.”
Cultural grievances took center stage
While Republicans have spent months attacking President BidenJoe BidenTrump tears into Biden as he moves toward 2024 campaign Biden says he hopes his legacy ‘is that I restored the soul of this country’ Cyber officials urge federal agencies to armor up for potential Russian attacks MORE and congressional Democrats over their handling of the economy, the Covid-19 pandemic and rising crime rates, CPAC demonstrated that the most die-hard conservatives are still focused intensely on cultural grievances.
That fact was evident in the conference’s slogan: “Awake, not woke.”
Throughout the four days of the conference, speakers repeatedly railed against alleged social media censorship, the teaching of critical race theory in schools and the pervasiveness of so-called cancel culture, while many of the kitchen-table issues that Republicans have sought to seize on nationally took a back seat.
Addressing the conference on Saturday, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) hammered what he described as the country’s turn toward “woke, government-run everything.” Pompeo warned “there is no threat greater to the United States than that which emanates inside our Republic.”
And Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDeSantis gets rock star treatment at CPAC Noem: Biden should resign if he doesn’t take stronger action against Russia Watch live: Coverage from Day 2 of CPAC ’22 MORE (R-Fla.), who addressed the conference on Friday morning, said, “You can always cut taxes. You can always roll back regulations. You can always elect better people. But when freedom is lost and it’s eroded, it is so hard to reclaim it and to get it back.”
The Ukraine crisis took a back seat
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has dominated the news cycle and captured the world’s attention. At CPAC, however, it seemed like more of an afterthought.
That’s not to say the crisis didn’t receive any attention. Speaker after speaker offered sympathy for Ukraine and used the invasion to attack Biden as a weak leader who had failed to deter the largest conventional military attack in Europe since World War II.
But it was rarely if ever the main focus of the conservation at CPAC, with speakers and attendees hewing toward culture war issues and more familiar conservative rallying points like COVID-19 restrictions and “cancel culture.”
Trump delivered some of the lengthiest remarks on the crisis in Ukraine in his prime time speech on Saturday, though he cited the crisis mainly to boast about his own successes.
“As everyone understands, this horrific disaster would never have happened if our elections were not rigged and if I was the president,” he said. “I stand as the only president of the 21st Century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country.”