Two years into the Trump presidential experiment, there’s no longer any doubt that the conservative movement has been redefined by President Trump, leaving him with a fiercely loyal base of support as he prepares for a 2020 re-election campaign in perhaps the most hostile environment in modern political history.
That campaign began in earnest Saturday as Sen. Bernard Sanders, the leading announced candidate in the Democratic field, officially launched his bid in New York, even as Mr. Trump — forgoing any official announcement — delivered a two-hour tour de force speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference laying out the battle lines.
The president told thousands of activists gathered in suburban Maryland that he is their bulwark against a wave of socialism that is cresting in the Democratic Party, he introspected on the tricky negotiations with North Korea, he made news by announcing a looming executive order on free speech on college campuses and he flashed new anger at efforts to investigate him — even using profanity to describe it.
“This is how I got elected, by being off script,” Mr. Trump said. “And if we don’t go off script, our country is in big trouble, folks.”
The Washington Times/CPAC straw poll shows he has been remarkably successful in leading the conservative movement away from its old script and to a new Trumpian version that rejects orthodoxies of free markets and limited executive powers and embraces tariffs and presidential emergency declarations.
Indeed, the president’s plan to declare the border emergency and siphon money from the Pentagon to build more border wall won support of 74 percent of straw poll respondents.
Two-thirds also agree with the president’s decision to pull troops from Syria, and two-thirds back his eagerness to use tariffs to force a new trade playing field.
“The base is there, the president is defining the conservative movement right now,” said Jim McLaughlin, who conducted the poll. “The president is capturing the heart, the mind, the soul of the conservative movement.”
In his lengthy address, Mr. Trump ruminated on the thorny nature of negotiations with Kim Jong-un, including seemingly trying to explain away his comment at a press conference last week that the North Korean leader didn’t know about the tortures that led to the death of American student Otto Warmbier.
“I’m in such a horrible position because in one way I have to negotiate, and the way I love Mr. and Mrs. Warmbier and I love Otto, and it’s a very delicate balance,” he said.
Mr. Trump also used CPAC to announce he will soon sign an executive order requiring colleges that take federal funds to make certain guarantees of free speech rights for their students.
But most of his speech was dedicated to taking a victory lap over his first two years in office, pointing to the economy and his success in getting judges confirmed, and drawing contrasts with where Democrats want to go.
“They’re embracing open borders, socialism and extreme late-term abortion,” he said.
“We hopefully are going to be here for six more years,” he said. “We believe in the American dream — not in the socialist nightmare.”
The activists at CPAC have little doubt who wins if the 2020 election is a battle over socialism.
That could be why more are afraid of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden as an opponent to Mr. Trump than any of the others who are eyeing a bid. Nearly 40 percent put Mr. Biden as the fiercest opponent, with Mr. Sanders a distant second place at nearly 12 percent, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris at slightly more than 11 percent.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke trailed far back in fourth place at 4.5 percent, while a pair of billionaires, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz were next in line. Mr. Schultz is running as an independent.
Sens. Cory A. Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar barely registered. None cracked the 2 percent mark as a feared presence.
While Mr. Trump was speaking in Maryland, Mr. Sanders, 77, was announcing his own 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination from his birthplace in Brooklyn, New York.
He did not mention socialism, but he did praise the expansive social safety net system he has long championed — and which has become standard campaign fare for the rest of the Democratic field.
“This struggle is not just about defeating Donald Trump,” he said. “This struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country. And I’m talking about Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry and a corrupt campaign finance system that enables billionaires to buy elections.”
Alex Reyes, a 21-year-old college student at CPAC, said Mr. Sanders is the Trump opponent he most fears, “but I don’t think he will win just because the Democratic Party itself has been having issues.”
A number of CPAC-goers said Democrats are trapped because anyone who can win the party’s nomination can’t win a general election. That was particularly true for Mr. Biden, 76.
“I think the younger folks are the face of the party — green party, socialist, liberalism, late-term abortion,” said Kathleen Smero of Baltimore, who was attending her seventh CPAC. “I don’t think this is the party that wants moderation.”
Other CPAC attendees said it didn’t matter what direction Democrats go because there is not a winner among them.
“I believe you could take all the Democratic contenders right now and put them in a room, and they still don’t equal one Trump,” said Tilghman Hemsley, 58, a waterman in Maryland.
CPAC doesn’t want to see anyone challenge Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination next year.
Of the more than 900 activists who participated in the straw poll, More than 80 percent will back the president. His closest potential opponent would be Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee who failed to unseat President Obama, far behind at 6 percent support.
Mr. Romney’s name drew boos from the audience as the results were released on the stage at CPAC.
• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.