ORLANDO, Fla. — Conservatives have soured on Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas firebrand who catapulted to stardom at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2016 and placed second in the Republican presidential primary won that year by Donald Trump.
Conservatives at CPAC mostly say Mr. Trump remains their No. 1 choice to run atop the 2024 GOP ticket. But if he decides not to seek a second term, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has firmly overtaken Mr. Cruz as the leading candidate to take the former president’s place at the head of the party.
Mr. Cruz, 51, who many believe is weighing a new bid for the White House in 2024, is seen as less trustworthy than in 2016 and not as Trumpian as Mr. DeSantis, say CPAC attendees.
The Texan has a Thursday speaking slot, but his star has fallen precipitously among party activists since 2016, when he handily won that year’s influential CPAC straw poll.
Mr. Cruz, a staunch conservative and self-declared constitutionalist, won a double-digit straw poll victory over both Sen. Marco Rubio and Mr. Trump.
But CPAC-goers are far less enamored with Mr. Cruz this year.
“I was a Cruz guy before I was a Trump guy, but now if Trump decides not to run, it would probably be DeSantis,” Walt Davis, a longtime CPAC attendee from Cincinnati, told The Washington Times. “I’ve seen Cruz as a senator. I have not seen him as a leader of a state, like DeSantis. DeSantis is a pleasant surprise.”
Mr. DeSantis, 43, has risen to stardom in the GOP field since taking the helm in the Sunshine State in 2019 and steering it clear of COVID-19 lockdowns and mandates. At the same time, Mr. DeSantis forcefully attacked the Biden administration and Democrats over illegal immigration, crime and the liberal “woke” agenda.
Mr. DeSantis gave the opening keynote address to the CPAC crowd, hours ahead of Cruz.
“There is no substitute courage,” he told an enthusiastic crowd. “Having the courage to reject corporate media narratives, having the courage to take on institutions like big tech, having the courage to stand in the way of the Biden administration.”
Mr. Cruz has also positioned himself as a vocal critic of the Biden administration and remains a solid conservative voice in the party. But he was largely thrust to the sidelines nationally after Mr. Trump defeated him and has never been able to regain the popularity he enjoyed in 2016.
Mr. Cruz is serving his second Senate term and has most recently fought to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas line from Russia to Germany. Mr. Cruz has been an outspoken critic of the Biden administration’s foreign policy, which he said enabled Russia to invade Ukraine on Thursday.
But some CPAC attendees said they’ve been disappointed in Mr. Cruz over the years and would no longer consider him to lead the field if Mr. Trump decides not to run.
“He’s been wishy-washy on a lot of things,” Gail Shaw, who lives in Florida, told The Times. “He doesn’t change his mind, but he changes his verbiage when he talks. It makes you wonder what side he is on.”
Mr. Cruz attracted criticism in January after he called the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol that took place a year earlier a “terrorist attack.” Later, Mr. Cruz appeared on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and reversed himself, calling his own comments “sloppy” and “frankly dumb.”
Mr. DeSantis is winning accolades with CPAC-goers because he appears to be the most like Mr. Trump.
“I think DeSantis has that personality like Trump does,” said Trish Asselta, of Wildwood, New Jersey. “He draws people in. And he speaks his mind. And I think people are flocking to Florida because of what he stands for.”
Mr. Cruz, CPAC goer Karen Arukelian of Montville, New Jersey, observed, “may be too conservative for the masses in America, or for President Trump.”
Mr. DeSantis, she said, “is conservative but has a softer way about it.”
Betty Barthy, of West Palm Beach, said it’s too soon to pick a front-runner if Mr. Trump is not in the race. Other names that CPAC-goers are considering include South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
As for Mr. Cruz, his 2016 CPAC win, “was a long time ago and things change,” Ms. Barthy said. “I think he’s a strong senator, and I’d like him to stay focused on that, and I think he’d make a great attorney general.”