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The Memo: CPAC fires starting gun on 2024

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-02-27
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Auditions for the 2024 Republican nomination have begun — and several big names are trying out for the role of the future Donald Trump.

There’s one problem, however. The former president may not be ready to cede the stage to an understudy.

Trump will give the keynote speech Sunday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which this year is being held in Orlando, Fla. The conference began in earnest on Friday.

Trump’s speech will be his most high-profile public engagement since leaving office after being impeached for a second time following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. He is widely expected to win a straw poll conducted among CPAC attendees earlier Sunday.

Trump has said nothing definite about running again. But even his detractors acknowledge he would be the strong favorite for the GOP nomination — even as those skeptics are also adamant he would lose a general election.

“Trump will be the nominee if he decides to run,” said Rick Tyler, a conservative strategist who is openly critical of Trump.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted for Trump’s conviction during both his impeachment proceedings, acknowledged the same reality in comments earlier this week.

Trump allies are fueling his fire. Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2020 campaign, tweeted a Suffolk University-USA Today poll earlier this week showing 76 percent of Republican voters would back Trump if he mounted another presidential bid.

CPAC, a traditional proving ground for Republicans seeking to build buzz for a presidential campaign, takes place amid ructions within the GOP over the former president and his legacy.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who recently held on to her House leadership position despite facing internal criticism for voting for Trump’s impeachment, has expressed her unease with giving the former president the prime speaking slot.

While she acknowledged that the decision was “up to CPAC,” she also noted, "I’ve been clear about my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following Jan. 6, I don’t think he should be playing a role in the future of the party."

Friday saw a procession of speakers who have set their sights on the former president’s mantle as a populist candidate if they enter the 2024 race.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) all spoke.

No one really doubts that the GOP has shifted decisively in Trump’s direction over the past four years. But the pro-Trump lane for 2024 is crowded, and some of the candidates running within it have significant problems.

Cruz sought to make light of his self-inflicted public relations disaster when he flew to Cancun, Mexico, in the middle of a crisis that afflicted his state, leaving 4 million Texans without power. Cruz told delegates that Orlando was “awesome” but “not as nice as Cancun.”

The Cancun debacle will recede in people’s memory over time. But it played into an existing narrative of Cruz as selfish and unlikeable.

Hawley tried to make a virtue out of his support for the former president’s challenge to the 2020 election results — even if a photo of him raising his fist in support of the crowds on the day of the insurrection will be featured in plenty of attack ads if he runs.

In his speech, Hawley sought to portray himself — as Cotton also did — as a victim of “cancel culture.”

“I was called a traitor. I was called a seditionist. The radical left said ... if I wouldn’t resign, I should be expelled from the United States Senate,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here.”

Figures such as Cruz, Cotton and Hawley are betting that sticking as closely as possible to Trump is the way to boost their 2024 chances. They may be right — but the calculus only works if he does not run again.

Some voices in the GOP say the pro-Trump candidates are basing their strategies on an error.

“They are making a bad assumption. They seem to think that Trump’s most avid supporters are transferable,” said one former Republican congressman. “But look at Mike Pence . Trump supporters were calling for the hanging of Mike Pence. Could there have been anyone more loyal to Donald Trump?”

Yet on the other side of the ledger, it is far from clear that there is any plausible path to the nomination for a candidate making a decisive break from Trump.

Pence will notably not appear at CPAC. Nor will former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), whose criticisms of Trump in a recent Politico profile left her open to the charge of trying to keep a foot in both pro- and anti-Trump camps. Candidates who might run as overly anti-Trump figures, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), are widely considered long shots.

CPAC will give plenty of Trump-like 2024 hopefuls their moment in the spotlight.

But for good or bad, it is still Trump’s party.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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