CPAC 2023: Fewer attendees, but Donald Trump is still the favourite

The Trump tribe from Texas
The Trump tribe from Texas says other Republicans should step aside in 2024

Dressed in red, white and blue sequined jackets, and carrying matching tote bags, their names spelled out T-R-U-M-P as they navigated the crowd.

The group of five conservative activists call themselves "the Trump tribe from Texas" that supports the former US president "1,000%" in his third White House run.

Other Republicans should step aside, said group leader Michael Manuel Reaud. "Let the only man that knows how to run this country, run the country. We don't want to divide the vote."

That is the message Donald Trump will deliver himself on Saturday when he gives the keynote address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), hosted by the American Conservative Union.

One of the premier events on the conservative political calendar, the grassroots gathering has transformed in recent years into a heavily pro-Trump affair, a reflection of his takeover of the Republican party.

In recent surveys, Mr Trump - who launched his 2024 campaign in November - still claims a commanding lead over prospective challengers for the Republican nomination. Only Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising star widely expected to run but who has yet to declare, is polling in the double digits.

But a majority of Americans overall view Mr Trump unfavourably - and it is no longer just the anti-Trump voices within the Republican Party who are questioning whether he offers the best chance of winning back the White House.

Even at CPAC, where crowds were smaller than in previous years, ardent Trump supporters are confronting the Republicans' elephant in the room: is Trump standing in the way of Trumpism?

"Donald Trump is going to have a bit of an electability problem," said Zachary Wangua, a 22-year-old attendee.

He's not convinced that Mr Trump, having lost to Joe Biden in 2020, can beat the Democratic incumbent at the next election.

"Trump was a great president and he did a lot for the conservative movement. Moving forward, we have to see how we can capitalise and push the movement to new lengths," he said.

Mr Wangua argued that Mr DeSantis should be the one to lead Republicans and might "miss his shot if he doesn't run" this time.

Arguably the biggest absence from this year's CPAC, Mr DeSantis will instead be the main draw this weekend at a private donor retreat in his home state.

That event is being held by the increasingly anti-Trump conservative group Club for Growth, and it will host at least six other potential presidential hopefuls including Mr Trump's Vice-President Mike Pence.

By avoiding CPAC, Mr DeSantis and others are "trying to avoid pre-primary conflict with Trump", said Lance Liang, 59, who was attending this four-day event near Washington event for the first time.

He said Mr Trump "woke up a lot of people like me" and is the best choice for 2024, but agreed he would struggle to beat Mr Biden.

"You want to win, choose DeSantis. You want to get the job done, choose Trump," he said.

Zachary Wangua
Zachary Wangua, 22, likes Donald Trump but prefers Ron DeSantis

Richard and Jean Belleville, both in their 80s, believe there is very little policy difference between the two men and Mr DeSantis has "done a great job in Florida".

But recounting a recent DeSantis speech he had watched, Mr Belleville complained: "He is not charismatic at all."

His wife believes that the 44-year-old governor was still learning. "Give Trump another chance," she said. "DeSantis will have his chance."

Other CPAC attendees hinted that they would back Mr Trump even if he ran as an independent - a potential nightmare scenario for Republicans that could split the vote.

Ruby Woron is "Trump or bust". "If they choose to install anyone else on the 2024 ticket, they will not get the vote of the grassroots," she said. "We're not a cult, we're a movement."

"He should start his own party," said Theresa McManus. "I'd like to see the Patriot Party and I'd be first in line to sign up."

But some voters point out it is still early days in the race for the nomination, and a lot could change before the first votes are cast in early 2024.

Ashlie Hightower prefers Mr Trump, but is open to Mr DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who joined the race last month and spoke before a half-empty hall at CPAC on Friday afternoon.

"It depends on what they declare their platform is and the issues they take a stand on," Ms Hightower said.

Rebecca Schmidgall is also leaning toward Mr Trump but hopes voters will pay attention to Vivek Ramaswamy, an Indian-American businessman who has launched his own long-shot White House bid.

"I don't think he holds a chance right now just because of name recognition," she said. "But he's going to improve the conversation and push the right agenda."

Both women said whoever wins the Republican nomination can beat President Biden in a general election.

"We have no country right now. We don't have a southern border. Our economy is in the tank. Ukraine is our 51st state," said Ms Schmidgall. "There's nothing they can run on."

But an underwhelming Republican performance in last November's midterm elections has cast doubt over what kind of message can win the next election.

Republicans failed to recapture the Senate and barely reclaimed the House of Representatives, with Mr Trump accused of propping up poor candidates. Meanwhile, Governor DeSantis breezed to re-election in Florida.

Mr Trump, who denied blame for the party's midterms disappointment, has attacked his would-be rivals on social media, raising fears of a brutal and protracted primary that could damage the eventual nominee.

"The direction of the Republican Party should be unity," said Christopher Anderson, a staunch Trump supporter attending his first CPAC. "We should be fighting the Democrats, not each other."

His solution? Mr Trump and Mr DeSantis on the same ticket as president and vice-president.