Friday , April 16 2021

What to Watch For at CPAC: Trump, Cruz, Pompeo and More

Starting on Friday, a medley of conservative politicians, commentators and activists will descend on Orlando, Fla., for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly known as CPAC. In years past, the event has been a reliable barometer for the base of the Republican Party, clarifying how its most devout members define the institution now, and what they want it to look like in the future.

For the party’s leadership, those questions have become especially urgent in the aftermath of former President Donald J. Trump’s election loss in November, not to mention the riot at the Capitol carried out last month by Trump supporters. The party has hardened over the past four years into one animated by rage, grievance and — above all — fealty to Mr. Trump. The days ahead will help illuminate whether it’s likely to stay that way.

The former president is scheduled to deliver the culminating speech of the conference at 3:40 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, but his presence will be felt throughout the event. Recent polls show that a majority of Republicans falsely believe the election was stolen from Mr. Trump, and the agenda this year indicates that subjects like voter fraud will be top of mind.

On Friday morning, panelists including Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who has enthusiastically backed Mr. Trump’s claims of fraud, will gather onstage for a 35-minute segment called “Protecting Elections: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence.” That theme picks up again on Sunday morning, when speakers will discuss what they call the “Failed States” of Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada — states that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won in November, and where Mr. Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the results sputtered.

The 45th president won’t be the only Trump to make an appearance. On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump Jr. will speak under the vague banner of “Reigniting the Spirit of the American Dream.” He’ll be introduced by Kimberly Guilfoyle, his girlfriend and a former Fox News personality.

In other words, when it comes to the elder Mr. Trump, expect this year’s CPAC to feel similar to the past four — from the number of times his name is invoked to the audience’s eagerness to hear from the man himself.

As conservatives look for a message to rally around ahead of the midterm elections in 2022, the CPAC agenda previews the uphill battle awaiting them. The agenda includes panels on the debt, abortion, education, Big Tech and “cancel culture.” But with so many segments anchored in the 2020 election, the conference appears to be less about mapping the party’s future than relitigating its past.

Except for one particular day, that is. Nowhere on the agenda is there any reference to Jan. 6 — not the pro-Trump march in Washington, the chants of “stop the steal,” nor the demonstration that devolved into a riotous mob storming the Capitol. Prominent Republican politicians have tried to pin the riot on antifa and other left-wing movements or groups, and CPAC will reveal how conservative voters regard the events of that day nearly two months later.

A speaking slot at CPAC is prime real estate for ambitious Republicans. This year, a number of those eager to claim the mantle of a post-Trump G.O.P. have managed to nab one. With the event being held in his state, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has perhaps the most coveted spot on the schedule apart from that of Mr. Trump himself — he’ll deliver the conference’s kickoff address on Friday at 9 a.m.

Other rumored 2024 candidates include Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who will speak on the “Bill of Rights, Liberty, and Cancel Culture” on Friday at 10:50 a.m.; Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who will discuss “Keeping America Safe” at 12:55 p.m. that day; and Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who is up at 2:55 p.m. for a discussion on “Unlocking Our Churches, Our Voices, and Our Social Media Accounts.”

Mr. Scott is immediately followed on the schedule by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, whose speech is simply titled “Remarks.”

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota will anchor the lineup on Saturday. He will speak on the Bill of Rights at 1:35 p.m. and she will address the audience at 3:50 p.m.; no topic is listed for her speech.

Looming over them all, of course, is Mr. Trump. If the former president’s popularity with the base holds firm, the 2024 election could revolve around whether he chooses to run. If he does, few Republicans are likely to challenge him for the nomination. If he doesn’t, candidates will pour as much energy into earning his endorsement as they do into their ground game in Iowa.

And so at CPAC, 2024 hopefuls are likely to deliver their speeches in a familiar mode: to an audience of one.

With the Republican Party looking to take back the White House in 2024, who isn’t speaking at CPAC this year is as telling as who is.

The most notable absence from the lineup is former Vice President Mike Pence. He has kept a low profile since Jan. 6, when some rioters called for his execution and Mr. Trump declined to take action to stop the mob. Politico first reported that Mr. Pence had declined an invitation to speak at CPAC.

Also absent from the agenda is Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who served under Mr. Trump as ambassador to the United Nations. Ms. Haley is another rumored contender for 2024, and her absence from the conservative conference may signal an attempt to occupy a more moderate lane in the party in the years ahead.



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