OXON HILL, Maryland: Former US president Donald Trump said Saturday (Mar 4) that he would continue his third presidential campaign even if indicted.
“Absolutely, I wouldn’t even think about leaving,” Trump told reporters ahead of a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Trump is under investigation by prosecutors probing his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election as well as his handling of classified documents, among other issues.
Trump delivered the conference’s headlining speech Saturday night, telling a cheering crowd of supporters that he was engaged in his “final battle” as he tries to return to the White House.
“We are going to finish what we started,” he said. “We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory.”
While CPAC was once a must-stop for candidates mulling Republican presidential runs, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a top potential Trump challenger, and other major likely contenders have skipped this year's gathering amid scandal and as the group has increasingly become aligned with Trump.
The former president's enduring popularity with this segment of voters was on display throughout the conference this week. Some attendees wore Trump-themed outfits, with “MAGA” hats and sequined jackets. Potential and declared candidates not named Trump received only tepid applause.
And the annual CPAC straw poll, an unscientific survey of attendees, found Trump the top choice to be the party's nominee, with 62 per cent support, trailed by DeSantis at 20 per cent and businessman Perry Johnson, who announced his long-shot bid at the conference, with 5 per cent.
Nearly all - 95 per cent of respondents - said they approved of Trump's performance as president.
“This is an audience that supports President Trump,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, R-NY, the No. 3 House Republican, who endorsed Trump days before he officially launched his 2024 campaign.
The only member of House leadership to attend the conference, Stefanik told The Associated Press that Trump continued to be the party’s leader.
“President Trump is in a very strong position and I think he will be the Republican nominee,” she said.
While his potential challengers for the White House were pitching themselves to conservative donors near his Florida home, Trump, in his speech, repeatedly criticised the Republican establishment, which is eager to move past the former president.
“We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neo-cons, globalists, open borders zealots and fools. But we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush,” he said.
He also took a veiled jab at DeSantis, calling out those who have proposed raising the age for Social Security or privatising Medicare - positions DeSantis has expressed support for in the past, but has since abandoned. “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans,” DeSantis recently said.
Trump told the crowd, “If that’s their original thought, that’s what they always come back to”.
While many top Republicans steered clear of the conference, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley both spoke Friday and took veiled jabs at Trump. Haley has declared her candidacy but Pompeo has yet to make it official. Their refusal to call him out by name underscored the risks faced by challengers looking to offer an alternative in a party in which Trump remains the dominating force.
“There is no one in that field I want as my president other than Donald J Trump,” said Waverly Woods, a Republican activist and marketer from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who said she likes DeSantis but that Trump has first claim on the hearts of many at the conference.
That includes Woods’ sometimes partner in local GOP races, Kim Shourds, whose car bears a “TRUMP WON” license plate.
DeSantis? She likes him, she said, but not enough. She wants the governor to sit down “and let my man come in and run this country”, Shourds said.
But not everyone at CPAC was on board.
E Payne Kilbourn, a retired Navy submarine captain from Neavitt, Maryland, who now writes and advocates for carbon dioxide, said he was “very, very” happy with Trump’s presidency, but now thinks it’s time for the party to move on.
“I think Donald Trump’s just too toxic for most of the country,” said Kilbourn, 69, an independent who votes for Republicans in general elections and wishes Trump would “bow out and just be the guy behind the scenes”.
Strategically, he sees DeSantis as better positioned to eventually win the White House. “I think he would have a better chance of getting elected,” he said.