Former President Donald Trump turned this year’s fairly sleepy, low-attended CPAC into a raucous campaign event Saturday as attendees clad in relics from his 2016 and 2020 campaigns clamored for his attention.
While more and more Republican leaders have been distancing themselves from Trump after many candidates he endorsed in the 2022 midterms lost their races, the ex-prez had a devoted group of far-right fanatics rooting him on at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the National Harbor in Maryland.
“We are never going back to a party that wants to give unlimited money to fight foreign endless wars but demands we cut veteran benefits and retirement benefits at home,” Trump said.
He also criticized the “entrenched political dynasties in both parties” — an apparent reference to the Bush family, which has opposed him for years.
“I’m standing before you because we’re going to finish what we started,” Trump told the crowd. “With you at my side … we will throw off the political class that hates our country.
“We will expose and appropriately deal with the RINOS [Republicans in Name Only], we will evict Joe Biden from the White House, and we will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all.”
Saturday was a stark contrast to CPAC’s first two days Thursday and Friday, when the event’s main hall was roughly half full and most people in the crowd wore business suits. A handful quietly told The Post they favor GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appears poised to officially throw his hat in the ring for the Republican presidential primary.
But the size of the crowd and its demeanor changed Saturday, when disco music blasted from the speakers and seats were mostly filled by 5 p.m. – half an hour before Trump took the stage.
While the exact attendance was unknown, 2,028 attendees — hordes with Trump’s name embroidered on their clothing — took part in the conference’s straw poll Saturday, including 62 percent who said they intend to vote for him.
“I didn’t know this was a rally,” Trump said after the crowd chanted his name. “But this really is a rally, isn’t it?”
DeSantis came in second in Saturday’s poll with 20 percent. He did not attend the conference, but audiences cheered when CPAC played a promo video featuring the governor speaking at a previous conference.
One of Trump’s already-announced challengers, former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, took the stage Thursday. Haley, 51, gave an articulate speech calling for a “new generation” of leaders in Washington — without explicitly mentioning the 76-year-old elephant in the room, Trump.
“My fellow conservatives, we’ve lost the popular vote in the last seven out of eight presidential elections. We have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans,” she said. “If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation. And if you want to win not just as a party, but as a country, then stand with me: I’m here to ask for your vote.”
In the CPAC straw poll, she received support in the single digits, and audience members booed Saturday when the announcer read her name.
Attendee Suzzanne Mock, dressed head to toe in MAGA gear — including a light-up message board reading “TRUMP” on her hat – said no other Republican can inspire enthusiasm like the country’s 45th president.
“We needed [Trump] in 2016, and we need him so much more in 2024 after what Joe Biden has done to this once great nation,” she said. “So I am definitely here to cheer the once and future president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, today.”
CPAC attendee Melissa Cornwell, dressed in a sequined red, white and blue jacket, said she traveled halfway across the country with her “Trump Tribe of Texans” group to watch the former president speak at CPAC.
Though energy at the conference has generally been more subdued than previous years, she said she felt the excitement build Saturday.
“It’s just the start of the presidential kickoff, and I’m so sad some [MAGA supporters] did not show up because they are amazing men and women that chose not to show up, and that’s their choice,” the Beaumont, Texas, resident said. “But we are here to let the world know Trump will be the next president in 2024.”
Cornwell added that while she “absolutely adore[s]” Haley, the former ambassador or DeSantis would be more her pick for vice president.
“That’s what makes America great, as we all have a right to choose. And I think it’ll be fun with her in the race,” she said of Haley. “But in the end, we know Donald Trump will get the nomination.”
Trump galvanized the crowd as he ended his speech saying, “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’”
“Today, I add, ‘I am your warrior. I am your justice.’”
“And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, ‘I am your retribution.’”