Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading alternative to Trump, won 20 percent, followed by businessman Perry Johnson with 5 percent and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley with 3 percent. Trump beat DeSantis in last year’s straw poll 59 percent to 28 percent, and slightly widened his advantage at a CPAC in Texas last August, winning 64 percent to 24 percent.
The secret ballot offers a glimpse of the potential conservative movement’s donors, influencers, elected officials and more who attend the four-day event and who they might back in a potential 2024 race. In the past, CPAC straw polls have had mixed results: In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) won the poll, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have each dominated in several past years.
The evolution of CPAC was evident in Trump’s remarks, as he distanced himself from Bush-era Republicans and underscored the idea that he would restore law and order in cities and abroad after he said conflict has broken out during the current and prior administrations.
“In 2016, I declared I am your voice,” he said. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”
Speaking with reporters before the speech, Trump said he would stay in the race even if he is indicted in ongoing criminal investigations of his handling of presidential documents and his role in instigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
He also responded to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s veiled jab in his CPAC speech that the party should leave behind “celebrity leaders” with “fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”
“I don’t consider myself a celebrity,” Trump told reporters.
Trump said it was too early to pick a running mate, sidestepping questions about DeSantis by crediting his endorsement with the governor’s last election win in Florida after he had previously name-called DeSantis.
Trump appeared to mend fences with some people who he had previously criticized.
After months of attacking Fox News, which aired his Saturday remarks, he said in his speech that television personalities Sean Hannity, Jesse Watters and Tucker Carlson should be awarded Pulitzer Prizes.
Attacks directed at the media and Democrats brought applause and several standing ovations from the animated crowd. The audience for Trump’s speech was the largest during the conference, which was scaled down from past years.
This year’s confab was particularly dominated by conservatives backing Trump, or trying to appeal to his supporters.
Before Trump, the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends table at CPAC featured cutouts of former presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. They have since been retired because they don’t appeal to the Trump base in attendance, said the group’s managing director Chris Johnson. Instead, the group placed a “Make American Energy Great Again” red cap at the center of their table and have adjusted their message to fit a “populist” perspective.
“The way you get people on the right to care about climate change is not convincing them on the science or whatever,” Johnson said. “It’s giving them solutions that are aligned with the things they already care about.”
The customers of “The MAGA Mall,” a conservative product wholesaler, overwhelmingly bought Trump-themed flags, hats and other knickknacks.
But Andrew Nau, a college student from Yorktown, Va., picked out a DeSantis cap, looking to represent his preference for the Republican nominee. Nau said he didn’t believe Trump could do as well as DeSantis in 2024, so he favored the Florida governor because he stood a better chance in the broader base outside of CPAC.
Minutes later, Florida residents Tracy and Mark Weaver strolled up to the booth and bought a Trump hat themselves. The couple, who traveled to CPAC for their 20th anniversary, said they helped in DeSantis’s last gubernatorial campaign, crediting themselves with his election. But they wouldn’t vote for him as the Republican nominee.
“President Trump is the only one who can save our country the next four years,” Tracy said.
“Right now, Donald Trump is still commanding Republican politics,” said Hogan Gidley, Trump’s former deputy press secretary and the director of the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute’s Center for Election Integrity. Gidley said attendees feel like they were given a voice when Trump was in office and remain loyal to that. His presence could also overshadow others, Gidley said, asserting why some like DeSantis stayed away.
“Donald Trump is going to be the headline,” he said.
Before Trump’s speech, Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing leader who was dubbed the Tropical Trump, roused crowds in the afternoon in a wide-ranging speech that touched on his efforts to expand gun rights in the country and to protect the freedom to refuse vaccinations. He delivered his speech in Portuguese, pausing to let an on-stage interpreter translate.
“I did not force anyone to get vaccinated in Brazil,” Bolsonaro said, according to the interpreter, prompting cheers from the crowd. “They keep saying ‘science, science, science.’ But what I say is ‘freedom, freedom, freedom.’”
He echoed many right-wing talking points, talking about his record liberalizing gun laws in the country and claiming it was linked to a drop in crime; talking about abortion restrictions and saying “we don’t want gender ideology.” He referred just once to his stinging election loss, saying that he believed he had much more support in 2022 than in 2018, when he prevailed.
“I don’t understand why the numbers reflect the opposite,” Bolsonaro said, hinting at his skepticism over the results.
Bolsonaro was a fitting opener for Trump, given his numerous ties to the former president’s administration. He has been counseled by Trump advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, and, like Trump, stoked anger among his base after he lost the election, suggested the win by his left-wing opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was fraudulent. Critics say his comments helped foment a Jan. 6-style riot in Brasília on Jan. 8 of this year.
Bolsonaro even decamped to Florida shortly before the New Year, retreating to Kissimmee, about 150 miles northwest of Mar-a-Lago. And like Trump, Bolsonaro is facing legal scrutiny.
Brazilian prosecutors are investigating him for spreading election misinformation, interfering with the federal police and leaking classified information.
He is also under investigation for genocide, with Indigenous groups and their defenders arguing that his public derision of them, and his refusal to stop illegal mining in the Amazon, sparked a widespread environmental and public health crisis that killed dozens. Still, Trump got only one mention in his substantive speech, when he called his relationship with the former president “exceptional.”
Moriah Balingit in Brazil contributed to this report.