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Low-key reception for Trump at conservative summit as 2024 race speeds ahead

Supporters hold a red, white and blue banner reading
Supporters hold a banner as former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)

OXON HILL, Md. — Former President Donald Trump regaled his faithful on Saturday evening in suburban Washington with promises of “retribution” against their mutual enemies, but the reception was relatively subdued compared with his past raucous speeches at the event.

"In 2016, I declared I am your voice,” Trump said to the ballroom packed with his most fervent loyalists at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), to some of the loudest sustained applause of the night. “Today I add: I am your warrior, I am your justice — and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I will totally obliterate the deep state."

But roughly 20% of the seats were empty, and Trump struggled at times to get a rise with his applause lines, including an extended riff about homeless military veterans being treated worse than undocumented immigrants.

CPAC’s annual event draws a wide array of Republican Party activists, lawmakers, donors and other influential figures on the right. The event — hailed by some as “Woodstock for conservatives” — was viewed as a required campaign stop for GOP presidential hopefuls, though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence both skipped the 2023 confab, perhaps aware that Trump would easily win its straw poll. Longtime staples of the right, like conservative media giant Fox News, also skipped the conference this year. And the crowd had fewer college Republicans than it has in recent years.

Sany Dash, one of the vendors selling Trump and MAGA merchandise at the conference, said the crowd was not what it used to be just a few years ago. The exhibition hall had more space and fewer vendors and activists.

“It’s Trumpism — he opened all this up,” Dash said. “It’s Trump’s party.”

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, wearing a red tie, white shirt and dark suit bearing a flag pin, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Former President Donald Trump. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

DeSantis, who remains Trump’s chief competitor for the nomination in early polling, wooed Republican megadonors Thursday night in Florida at a competing conference organized by the Club for Growth. The governor rallied Republicans in Texas Friday evening and will deliver a campaign-style speech at the Reagan Library in Southern California on Sunday.

Other White House aspirants, however, attended CPAC, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is said to be considering a campaign, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who recently announced her candidacy.

But in the halls of the Gaylord Convention Center in suburban Washington this past weekend, Trump reigned supreme. He dominated the annual CPAC straw poll with 62% support, compared with 20% who wanted to see DeSantis win the nomination. Haley was heckled by Trump supporters after her speech. “We love Trump! We love Trump!” some attendees shouted.

“When you've got somebody who's a sitting president and a real active player, it becomes their playground, as it were,” pro-Trump commentator Jeffrey Lord told Yahoo News.

“It was Reagan's, and in the day … he came every year, in black tie, and he gave a funny speech. And everybody loved it,” Lord said. “But the hard fact of the matter is, he's gone. And, you know, Trump is here, and everybody loves him.”

Beyond the halls of CPAC, Trump also has a commanding position in the race. He recently retook the lead in a hypothetical matchup with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the nomination, with 45% favoring him and 41% backing DeSantis, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released last week.