By Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) – The leading photo on the website of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual get-together of American rightwing notables, is of a grinning Donald Trump.
When the conference kicks off in Orlando, Florida, this week, the former president will be counting on an adoring crowd to cement his dominance of the Republican Party ahead of November’s congressional elections – as well as a potential presidential run in 2024.
The photo next to Trump’s on the speakers’ list is of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose rising national profile is driving speculation that the 43-year-old former federal prosecutor is also eyeing a run for the White House.
The juxtaposition is symbolic of the Republican Party’s looming choice: Does it coalesce around a fresh face or Trump, who would be 78 in 2024 and whose presidency was marked by turmoil?
“I’m sure Trump will be received as a hero,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist. “The question will be: Are there any cracks in that armor?”
If in his Saturday speech Trump belabors false assertions that election fraud was to blame for his loss against Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020, it will reinforce party fears that he is backwards-looking, DuHaime added.
While polls show a significant percentage of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, half of Republicans also said it was time to “move on” from Trump’s 2020 fraud claims, according to a Politico-Morning Consult survey conducted Feb. 12-13.
Trump’s fixation on 2020 has fanned concerns among establishment Republicans that he is putting personal revenge above party success by endorsing challengers running against incumbent Republicans who have crossed him.
But given Trump’s pull with voters, concerns among Washington, D.C., insiders may not carry that much weight: Trump’s rallies attract large crowds, congressional candidates covet his endorsement, and his fundraising operations have left him with over $100 million in cash. He is widely considered the 2024 frontrunner, should he throw his hat in.
Even so, Trump’s presidential aspirations could yet be stymied by several investigations involving him, including a New York state civil probe into his family business and a congressional panel looking into the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has earned conservative plaudits for opposing COVID-19 mask mandates and being on the forefront of “culture war” issues like abortion and how much say parents should have over their children’s education.
While neither man has said he is running for the White House in 2024, attending the Feb. 24-27 CPAC meeting, which touts itself as the “largest and most influential” worldwide gathering of conservatives, will be important for both of them.
It will give DeSantis access to national media coverage and exposure to conservatives from across the country. For Trump, “it’s a chance to see if his base is still solid or showing cracks,” DuHaime said.
Representatives for Trump and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.
CPAC will hold a straw poll of who should run for president. Last year in Orlando, Trump reportedly garnered 55% of votes, more than twice as many as DeSantis, who was also a featured speaker. Trump then reportedly received 70% of votes at CPAC’s summer gathering in Dallas last July.
A NEW ‘TRUMPISM’?
Trump last month slammed “gutless” politicians who don’t disclose their COVID-19 vaccination status, in what was seen as a dig at DeSantis, who has not revealed whether he has received a booster shot. Trump later said reports of a rift with DeSantis were “fake news.”
Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor and the CEO of oilfield services company Canary, LLC, said any more verbal broadsides at CPAC would be a sign of how “seriously” the former president takes DeSantis as a challenger.
Eberhart said he supports both men. But, he added: “DeSantis would present Trumpism with a newer, less divisive gloss.”
Some Trump supporters, like political strategist Roger Stone, stress that DeSantis owes Trump for his 2018 endorsement that helped propel the then-low-profile U.S. congressman to Florida’s top office.
“Therefore I would hope that Governor DeSantis gives the president wide berth,” Stone, who has openly criticized DeSantis and called on him to endorse Trump in 2024, said in an interview. Stone, a former Trump adviser, does not currently have a role in Trump’s operation. Trump pardoned Stone in December 2020, sweeping away the most important convictions under the long-running Russia election probe.
DeSantis’ camp is seeking to tone down talk of tension and keep the focus on Florida. DeSantis’ CPAC speech will seek to highlight the state’s unrestrictive approach to COVID-19 to anyone “looking to flee lockdown and mandate states,” said Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist and DeSantis fundraiser.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; additional reporting by Jason Lange; editing by Ross Colvin and Leslie Adler)