CPAC Starts Tomorrow and Trump Is Still Center of the Republican Universe

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Things have been quiet on the Republican front since President Donald Trump left the White House five weeks ago.

With Democrats pushing to deliver a widely popular economic-relief package and accelerate the circulation of coronavirus vaccines, the G.O.P. has not yet landed on a countermessage for voters in the middle. But for most of the Republican base, Trump is still the center of the political universe — even in absentia.

Don’t believe it? Just tune in to coverage of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which gets underway tomorrow morning in Orlando, Fla., and where on Sunday, Trump will give his first major address since leaving office.

Known as CPAC, the annual conference is homecoming weekend for the ultraconservative base of the Republican Party. A strong reception there can give a big boost to politicians looking to burnish their credentials and cast their fortunes forward.

A number of rising figures in the party will get coveted speaking time, including Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who will deliver the conference’s kickoff address tomorrow at 9 a.m.

The state’s junior senator, Rick Scott, who’s widely thought to hold presidential ambitions, will also speak at the conference. (A subtle theme of the weekend is the centrality of Florida politics and politicians; under Trump, the state became a de facto petri dish for the new Republicanism.)

But ultimately, this will almost certainly be Trump’s show. And not for nothing: As our reporter and Trump guru Maggie Haberman recently wrote in an article previewing his appearance on Sunday, Trump is privately focused on another run for president in 2024. Without access to Twitter, having spent weeks in virtual public silence — speaking only in a few scattered phone interviews after the death of Rush Limbaugh — Trump is likely to take advantage of this opportunity to air his grievances and reposition himself as the head of his flock.

“CPAC has always been an important support group for him, so my sense is he’ll get excited and attack the Democrats, and attack the process, and, obviously, attack his enemies — of which many happen to be Republicans at this point,” Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican strategist who runs the Great America PAC, said in an interview. “The rowdier he gets, the more they’ll love it, so that adds fuel to the fire.”

Rollins’s political action group grew out of Trump’s 2016 operation, but it has not committed to supporting him in any future race. With his eye toward unifying the party ahead of the 2022 midterms, Rollins said that Trump would be wise to focus on assuaging the concerns of moderate Republicans. But he added that this probably wasn’t the venue for that.

“If he wants to be the leader of this party and continue to be, he has to make peace with Republicans of all varieties,” Rollins said. “I think he’ll get in front of that crowd, and no matter how carefully scripted they have him going in there, he’s going to basically do his own thing — as he has numerous times in the past.”

There are some conspicuous absences from the list of CPAC invitees, reflecting the current divide in the party. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the chamber, who has been open about his desire to leave Trump in the dust, was not invited. Mike Pence, whose term as vice president ended acrimoniously, as he refused to support Trump’s 11th-hour power grab, leading Trump’s supporters to threaten Pence’s life as they stormed the Capitol, declined an invitation to speak. And Nikki Haley, once a rising force in the party, will not be there either — after she gave a withering interview to Politico blasting Trump and saying that he had no future in G.O.P. politics.

A poll released Sunday by Suffolk University and USA Today found that three in every five voters who backed Trump last year said they would like to see him run again next time. Just 29 percent said he shouldn’t try again.

If there’s going to be a splintering of the party’s more socially moderate, corporate-minded wing and its increasingly working-class base, the numbers so far favor the base. According to the Suffolk/USA Today survey, voters who backed Trump last year said by a 20-point margin that they felt more loyalty to him than to the Republican Party.

Forty-six percent said they would follow Trump to a new party if he broke away from the G.O.P. And 27 percent said they hadn’t made up their minds on it yet.

(The poll’s sample included any respondents who had indicated in a Suffolk survey at some point in 2020 that they would vote for Trump, and had said they were willing to be called back after the election. Ninety percent of respondents to this poll indicated that they had, in fact, cast a ballot for him in November.)

It’s not just Trump the politician who retains his appeal. It’s also the groundwork of falsehoods that he laid, and that have become a kind of litmus test for which side of the G.O.P. divide a voter falls on.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents to the Suffolk/USA Today poll said that they thought the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 was primarily the work of antifa, and “only involved a few Trump supporters.” Nearly four in five said the rioters would have stormed the Capitol even if Trump hadn’t egged them on. By comparison, 28 percent called it “a rally of Trump supporters, some of whom attacked the Capitol,” and just 4 percent said it had been an attempted coup.

Trump’s claims that the election was stolen from him — which he has repeated in the wake of Limbaugh’s death, and which he is likely to air out again on Sunday — still have traction among his supporters. Only 17 percent of respondents to the poll said Biden had been elected president legitimately, despite the absence of real evidence to the contrary.

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