- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2022

ORLANDO, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump’s popularity has waned very little at the nation’s most influential gathering of conservative activists.

More than a year after Mr. Trump left the White House, the hallways and conference rooms at the Conservative Political Action Conference were jammed with attendees in red baseball caps and other Trump campaign apparel. Those interviewed by The Washington Times said Mr. Trump is their top pick to run for president in 2024 and they fully expect him to lead the Republican Party ticket. 

“I know he’s going to be running again, and he’s going to win,” said Gail Shaw, who lives in Florida. “That’s just the way I feel. I think a lot of people think that, and a lot of people know that.”

Mr. Trump easily dominated the CPAC straw poll, which measured candidates who conservatives want to see at the top of the 2024 ticket. More than 2,500 CPAC attendees participated in the poll this year. 

Mr. Trump won a 97% approval rating from CPAC attendees and took 59% of the vote. The runner-up, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, garnered 28%.

Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin, who conducted the straw poll, pointed out that Mr. Trump’s numbers increased by 4 percentage points from last year, when he won 55% of the vote in the first CPAC straw poll since his defeat in the 2020 election. 

“Nothing has faded for the president,” Mr. McLaughlin told the crowd while announcing the results on Sunday.

At the end of the conference, farmer and Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster hammered home the point by telling the crowd to “pretend we are at a Donald J. Trump rally.”

The four-day event was essentially a tribute to the former president and a stage for supporters to beckon him to run once again. 

The CPAC stage showcased only pro-Trump speakers and Trump-endorsed candidates. Rep. Liz Cheney, a solid conservative Republican from Wyoming who wants Mr. Trump banished from party politics, was not invited, nor was Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a onetime CPAC star turned pariah who is a vocal Trump opponent.

Mr. Trump addressed a packed ballroom at the Rosen Shingle Creek hotel Saturday night and sent another strong signal to his base that he plans to run for president.

“We did it twice, and we’ll do it again,” Mr. Trump told the crowd. “We’re going to be doing it again. A third time.”

The list of speakers included former Trump administration officials and congressional lawmakers who praised the former president’s domestic and foreign policy and contrasted it with President Biden’s performance.

Mr. Trump’s popularity, however, hasn’t stopped the CPAC crowd from contemplating another Republican to take his place in 2024. 

For the second year in a row, Mr. DeSantis won 61% of the straw poll vote on a second ballot that excluded Mr. Trump

Two-thirds of Mr. Trump’s voters from the first ballot backed Mr. DeSantis on the second ballot.

Some Trump supporters told The Times that they have started to think about other rising stars in the party. 

The CPAC stage, while dominated by Trump supporters, showcased other party standouts who are considered possible presidential contenders. Mr. DeSantis, who tops the list, delivered a keynote address to open the conference on Thursday. 

Other possible candidates who addressed CPAC were former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. They paid homage to Mr. Trump while offering an early look at how they might run for the White House

Rachel Sheley, who traveled to CPAC from Kentucky, said Mr. Trump remains her top pick, but she realizes he remains a polarizing political figure. She said she is “open” to backing someone else who might have an easier path to the White House

She said she could envision Mr. Trump endorsing another Republican to run for president instead of running himself “because he is so controversial.”

Still, she said, “If he ran, I would support him.”

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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