NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Nikki Haley, after wrapping up her speech to a courteous but mildly interested audience, walked out of a half-empty ballroom here Friday and into a small circle of friendly selfie-seekers.
For a moment, the Republican White House nominee received the warm reception she had been denied minutes earlier by the crowd at the annual CPAC meeting, where she offered her family lines on aging officials and other subtle criticisms of former President Donald Trump.
The banter was soon cut short.
«Trump 2024!» a woman yelled as she sneaked up to the scrum. «Triumph! Triumph! Triumph!»
Others joined in, their chants following Haley as her aides rushed her to an elevator.
The tense and hostile scene offered early hints of how Trump’s most ardent supporters will clash with the candidates facing him for the Republican nomination in 2024. And it underscored how the CPAC, once the premier event celebrating conservatism, it has been reduced to a forum to celebrate Trump while entertaining his fans with a carnival of MAGA delicacies.
Trump will close the conference on Saturday night with a keynote address, following a presidential opinion poll that, judging by the dynamics here, should heavily favor him. His closest competitor in public opinion pollsFlorida Gov. Ron DeSantis is skipping the event and is the subject of independent speculation here only.
Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, was one of the few presidential prospects in attendance, a departure from what once functioned as a testing ground for contenders, including Trump during his transition from reality TV mogul to politician. . Republican top brass like President Kevin McCarthy and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell are staying away, with the depressed turnout blamed on a narrow focus on Trump and a sexual misconduct allegation against CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp.
“CPAC has become a Trump meeting instead of a conservative meeting,” David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, told NBC News.
Williams’ group had previously rented a kiosk at the conference. But the dominance of Trumpism and the impeachment against Schlapp prevented Williams from returning this year.
“It has become toxic,” Williams said.
Schlapp, whose lawyers have denied any wrongdoing, opened the conference Thursday by responding defiantly to reports of CPAC’s problems and insisting that all was well while introducing Rep. Jim Jordan, the pugnacious conservative from Ohio. Outside the main ballroom, a more energetic crowd gathered around Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who was broadcasting his popular right-wing show live from the media row.
It feels like MAGA country.
Donald Trump Jr.
“The Conservative Populist Action Conference!” Bannon yelled from his booth, offering a Trumpian review of CPAC, which actually stands for Conservative Political Action Conference.
Not everyone here is happy with the evolution of CPAC.
Michael Biundo, a Republican strategist and veteran of several presidential campaigns, including Trump’s in 2016, complained On twitter that this year’s CPAC was, «hands down, the worst of the bunch.»
Biundo later told NBC News that CPAC is losing its relevance, citing the rise of right-wing groups like Turning Point USA and an almost exclusive devotion to Trump.
«It’s become Donald Trump’s Political Action Conference, so if I’m running a presidential campaign, why push my people to show up in the opinion poll?» Biundo, who is not affiliated with any candidate or potential candidate, wondered.
The point is not lost on Trump or his family.
“It feels like a MAGA country,” Donald Trump Jr. said as he began his speech on Friday.
Other than Haley, the only outspoken rivals of Trump to take on the CPAC were two little-known businessmen, Perry Johnson and Vivek Ramaswamy. Former Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is considering a run, also spoke Friday and, like Haley, received a lukewarm response.
Only Johnson, who was disqualified from last year’s Republican gubernatorial primary in Michigan after failing to collect enough valid signatures, put in much of a political push. The self-described «quality guru» deployed a team of red-shirt-wearing volunteers to start conversations: «Perry, who?» read, to tour the halls of the conference site, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
Aside from Johnson’s team, the scene was a sea of pro-Trump T-shirts, slogans and costumes, completed by loyal Trump administration veterans from Ben Carson to Sebastian Gorka. Inside CPAC Central, a marketplace for merchandise and information booths, former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer watched his recently published children’s book and the pen he held ready to sign autographs. Another vendor held up a giant thank you note for Trump: “Not an endorsement,” the paper clarified, “just a BIG thank you!”
Many were far less shy about endorsing Trump. Stephen Robinson, an aide from Virginia, sported a homemade Trump-Lake button, indicating a preference for Kari Lake, a Trump-inspired voter denier who refuses to acknowledge that she lost her bid for Arizona governor last year. as vice president.
“I think that would be a piece of cake,” Robinson said. Trump, he added, deserves the nomination in 2024. «It’s not open to anyone else.»
Others expressed a willingness to consider DeSantis and Haley or potential contenders such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, saying they preferred those candidates to wait until 2028.
«I’ll listen to them,» said Thomas Melvin, a Florida retiree, «but I don’t know why they would want to go against Trump.»
And when it comes to DeSantis, several of Trump’s highest-profile backers have fended off questions about his possible candidacy by praising his work as governor. One by one, they offered the same advice: Stay in Florida.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida who has sided with DeSantis in the past, said in an interview that he «would prefer that he continue to be our governor.»
“I worked very hard to make him governor and I want Ron DeSantis eight years as governor,” Gaetz added.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, suggested an additional four years, something that is unconstitutional in Florida under the state’s limit of two consecutive terms.
“If I were Florida, I would give him a third term and beg him to stay as governor,” he told reporters on Friday.
Lake, who headlined the Friday night dinner at CPAC, worked from similar talking points.
“I think the people just elected him, re-elected him, for governor because he’s been an effective governor,” he said as he walked through the convention hall a few hours before dinner. “I think they want me to remain governor. It’s Donald Trump time.»