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Trump fans have dominated CPAC, raising questions for the Republican Party

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's CPAC time, the Conservative Political Action Conference. And this year's headliner, former President Donald Trump, is set to close out the show tonight. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us. Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: CPAC is often - let me put it this way - a chorus line for Republican candidates, where, you know, they audition before politically active, young conservatives who might want to work in their political campaigns. Has that been the case this year, though?

MONTANARO: That's a really good way to put it because it generally is something of a chorus line of Republicans who are kind of coming in, trying to play to the sort of thousands of conservatives, usually young activists, who get together there. Part of the conservative movement - really, a weather vane for the conservative movement is what CPAC winds up being. But this time around, really not many of those potential presidential candidates showed up. We did hear from a couple of them. Nikki Haley was one. She's the former South Carolina governor who worked as U.N. ambassador in the Trump administration. Here's what - some of what she had to say. She really tried to appeal to the right wing of the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down. I have traveled the world and back, and I've seen what's out there. America isn't perfect, but the principles at the heart of America are perfect. And take it from me, the first minority female governor in history, America is not a racist country.

(CHEERING)

MONTANARO: You know, there's a lot in that, obviously. And you can tell there she's kind of trying to walk this line. You know, she's throwing red meat to the base, hoping to win them over. But Donald Trump really has a real stronghold on a lot of that base. She really needs to win over white-collar Republicans who are the ones who are mostly saying that they want an alternative to Trump.

SIMON: Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state, also spoke. He has been going through all the expected motions of someone who's considering becoming a candidate. Did he try to distance himself at all from Donald Trump?

MONTANARO: Yeah, and I was really listening to see what kind of line he was going to draw because it hasn't been clear how he was going to distinguish himself. But he did try to make something of an electability argument. And let's take a listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: We lost three elections in a row and the popular vote in 7 of the last 8. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is, I think, they've lost trust in the conservative ideas. And this is the task that's in front of us. And I am convinced we can do it because we're right.

MONTANARO: You know, Pompeo really took what was kind of an oblique shot at Trump, but kind of veiled, really. You know, he talked about himself having been a Sunday school teacher and that the country needs that kind of character. But his speech wasn't exactly a barnburner, and neither was Nikki Haley's, really. And they spoke both in front of kind of half-empty audiences and really got just lukewarm receptions at best.

SIMON: Domenico, you've covered CPAC for almost two decades. And I wonder what this year's confab tells you about the state of the conservative movement in America right now.

MONTANARO: Yeah, you know, it's really fractured. You know, CPAC is usually, you know, an event that tells you where the movement is headed. And it seems more like it's still something more like TPAC, a Trump political action conference, because it really just highlighted that. Even Haley was sort of sandwiched between two Trumps. You know, Donald Trump Jr. went before her. Lara Trump, former President Trump's daughter-in-law, went afterward.

So you know, the bigger news here this weekend almost was that the people who didn't show up - we're talking about Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator, and Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, who all opted to go to a donor retreat in Florida hosted by the Club for Growth, which is an anti-tax group that's been involved in Republican politics for a long time. And they're saying that they want to really support somebody other than Trump, and these candidates really need the kind of money that comes along with that. But because Trump has such a stronghold on the party infrastructure in a potentially crowded field, he still looks like the man to beat.

SIMON: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much for being with us.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.