- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2021

Former President Donald Trump will reassert himself as the dominant force in the Republican Party and stake his claim as the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee when he delivers a speech Sunday at the annual CPAC conference.

Mr. Trump wants to show his unrivaled and undiminished hold on the party’s base despite no longer holding the bully pulpits of the presidency or his Twitter account, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Trump effectively is the Republican Party,” said Trump senior adviser Jason Miller. “The only chasm is between Beltway insiders and grassroots Republicans around the country. When you attack President Trump, you’re attacking the Republican grassroots.”

The former president will undoubtedly receive a wildly enthusiastic reception at the conference in Orlando, Florida. His previous addresses to CPAC audiences during his presidency were punctuated with standing ovations as he served up red meat for conservatives and, once, literally hugged an American flag.

This time, Mr. Trump is expected to lay out an agenda that includes confronting China, attacking President Biden’s immigration policies, reopening schools and loosening Big Tech’s grip on political discourse.

A supporting cast of speakers features some of Mr. Trump’s inner circle —  Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle; former White House press secretary and Arkansas GOP gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and congressional allies such as Republican Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Matt Gaetz of Florida.

Not in the lineup is former Vice President Mike Pence, who was once considered perhaps the strongest contender for the GOP nomination in 2024. He’s decided to skip this year’s conference, a decision CPAC organizers called a mistake.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas are among the possible GOP 2024 contenders looking to make inroads with Trump supporters.

Mr. Gaetz said Mr. Trump was “talking absolutely like a candidate” when he visited the former president on Saturday in Florida.

“I believe that the future of the GOP is another candidacy for President Trump in 2024,” Mr. Gaetz said Sunday on Fox News.

The Republican National Committee issued a fundraising email on Monday seeking donations for the “Trump Legacy Membership Program,” calling it an exclusive group of Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters.

“Our beautiful movement is just getting started, and President Trump wants you to be an important part of it,” the RNC said.

The former president is reentering the spotlight even as he persists with his claims that he won the election last November, but had it stolen from him through voter fraud. After losing a Supreme Court ruling on Monday allowing the Manhattan district attorney access to his private financial records, Mr. Trump said it was a continuation of “the election crimes that were committed against me.”

His CPAC appearance is coming as prominent Republicans are seeking his help in raising campaign cash and promoting candidates for the 2022 congressional election cycle.

The divide between the GOP establishment and the Trump wing of the party has widened since his presidency ended after a MAGA-hat-wearing mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest Mr. Trump’s defeat.

Republicans who previously griped in private about the president’s boorish behavior have been increasingly willing to share their criticism publicly. They’ve won some praise, but, in several cases, have been censured by their state parties.

“Poll after poll over the last month has shown that former President Trump is still the overwhelming head of the Republican Party and no one comes close to him,” said Andy Surabian, a GOP strategist. “That’s why in every competitive primary this cycle, all of the top-tier candidates are running toward Trump and not away from him.”

That has certainly become clear in Ohio, where former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and former state GOP party chair Jane Timken recently entered the race carrying the Trump banner and taking aim at anti-Trumpers and establishment types.

“There is no ‘GOP Civil War’ over Trump, because to have an intra-party civil war, you need to have two sides with actual voting constituencies, and unlike civil wars of the GOP past, the ‘anti-Trump’ side is basically a handful of operatives in the Beltway who always hated him deep down and are not our actual voters,” Mr. Surabian said.

His insistence that the election was stolen will drive seven separate “Protecting Elections” panel discussions at CPAC, ranging from “Why Judges & Media Refuse to Look at The Evidence” to “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered it Up, and Even Admits It.”

The focus on Mr. Trump marks a dramatic turn of events from 2016 when Mr. Trump opted against appearing at CPAC after reports surfaced that activists were planning a walk-out to protest his address to the conference.

William Temple, a CPAC regular who planned the protest, has gone from calling Mr. Trump a “megalomaniac” to seeing him as “the best president the United States ever had.”

“This guy did more in three years then any president — even Reagan — since I was born and I was born in 1950,” Mr. Temple told The Times. “So he was a unique president and he still controls this party whether the RINOs like it or not. If they set themselves up against him, they are in trouble.”

Mr. Temple said Mr. Trump fulfilled his promises. The 70-year-old said he believes the election was stolen and that Democrats welcomed the attack at the Capitol as a way to paint all Trump backers in a negative light.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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