OXON HILL, Md. – Two leading Republicans took veiled jabs at former President Donald Trump at an annual gathering of conservatives Friday, knocking “celebrity leaders” not in tune with reality while noting winnable elections that had been lost as they urged a party course correction ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.
But their refusal to call him out by name underscored the risks faced by potential and declared challengers worried about alienating Trump’s loyal base.
In their remarks, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley — both of whom served in the Trump administration — offered a snapshot of how the former president's declared and potential 2024 opponents are trying to delicately navigate his dominant role in the party while looking for ways to differentiate themselves in what could be a nasty and crowded primary contest.
“We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” Pompeo said in an afternoon speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Haley, who launched her campaign last month, hit on similar themes, noting the party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.
“Our cause is right but we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans. That ends now. 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,” Haley said.
While she received polite applause throughout her speech, several attendees chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as she walked through the venue.
It was a sign of the dissonance at the event as potential and declared challengers tried to make inroads at a gathering that has become closely aligned with the former president. While other declared and likely candidates were offered speaking slots, Trump has been given top billing as the Saturday evening headliner, and his son Donald Trump Jr. has been mobbed throughout the conference by excited fans.
Haley and Pompeo were among a handful of announced or potential Republican presidential candidates who attended the CPAC event, which was once a must-stop for GOP hopefuls but has been less of a draw this year.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina skipped the event this year as it’s been dimmed by controversy and its overt homage to Trump.
Like Haley, Pompeo noted recent Republican losses over the years and blamed the party for its shortcomings.
“We lost race after winnable race. It’s because voters didn’t trust us to do any better than the tax-and-spend liberals,” he said, echoing a criticism raised by some attendees. “Every recent administration, Republican and Democrat alike, added trillions in dollars to our debt. That is deeply unconservative.”
More broadly, he said that voters had “lost trust in conservative ideas.”
“Losing is bad because losing is bad. But the principles that we stand for are what’s really at risk. And it’s not a political problem. The problem is that the losses are a symptom of something much bigger. It’s a crisis in conservatism,” he said. “We’ve lost confidence that we are right.”
In an interview before his speech, Pompeo told The Associated Press that he had chosen to attend this year's event because it's "a great group of people who represent a broad swath of our party.”
He brushed aside the significance of Saturday's straw poll of CPAC attendees on their 2024 presidential preference, an unscientific survey that Trump is expected to win, while noting that the election is more than a year and a half away.
“There’s a long way to go. There’s lots of ground to cover and I think everyone who decides to get in the race will have a lot of opportunity in the fall to make their case,” Pompeo said. “I’ve been in straw polls. I’ve done great. I’ve done less great. I don’t think it says a whole lot about how this will end."
Pompeo, one of a long list of potential candidates, said he is still mulling a decision about whether to challenge his former boss for the nomination.
“Still working our way through, figuring it out,” he said, adding that he and his family were “now within a couple months of a decision.” In the meantime, “we’re doing all the things one would do to be prepared to make the case to the American people,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also said without hesitation that he will support the eventual Republican nominee, quipping, “It seems unlikely that President Biden would be someone I could get behind."
That stands in contrast to Pence, who declined to say Thursday whether he would back his former boss if Trump ends up the party's pick in 2024.
“I think we’ll have better choices,” Pence told The Associated Press in an interview in South Carolina. “I’m persuaded that no one could have defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 except Donald Trump, but I think we live in a different time and it calls for different leadership.”
The Republican National Committee is planning to block candidates from its primary debates if they do not sign a pledge to support the GOP’s ultimate presidential nominee, setting up a potential clash with candidates including Trump, who has raised the possibility of leaving the Republican Party and launching an independent candidacy if he does not win the GOP nomination outright.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a tech entrepreneur and author of the book “Woke, Inc.” who is also running for president, addressed the convention Friday and told the AP later in an interview that he saw himself as a successor to Trump.
“I’m building on the foundation he laid,” Ramaswamy said, adding that he’d focus more on ending affirmative action and climate change mitigation than the former president. He also said he would support the eventual GOP nominee “if everybody else makes that commitment.”
While the Trump faithful gathered in Maryland, the influential anti-tax group Club For Growth, which has clashed with Trump, held a competing event in Florida where DeSantis and others were invited but Trump was not — a sharp illustration of some in the party’s conservative flank seeking a new direction.
David McIntosh, Club For Growth’s president, said in an interview Friday that DeSantis, who kicked off the group’s donor summit with a Thursday night speech, did not say whether he was going to run for president and instead focused his remarks on policy issues.
“He talked a lot about his win in the last election but did not indicate anything one way or another about a presidential run,” McIntosh said.
He said DeSantis was enthusiastically received by a crowd of about 150 people and spoke about his record in Florida and his vision of governing in the state.
McIntosh said Pence, also at the event, did not indicate when he might make a decision on whether to seek the presidency. Haley, Scott and Ramaswamy were also slated to speak in Florida.
Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.