City of OXON HILL, State of Maryland: At the annual gathering of conservatives on Friday, two prominent Republicans made oblique references to former President Donald Trump by criticizing “celebrity leaders” out of touch with reality and pointing out easily winnable elections that the party had lost.

However, by not directly naming Trump, they highlighted the dangers that declared and potential opponents face when they worry about alienating Trump’s loyal base.

Both Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley served in the Trump administration as secretaries of state and ambassador to the United Nations, respectively, and their remarks provided a glimpse into how the former president’s declared and potential 2024 opponents are attempting to balance the party’s respect for him with the need to stand out in what could be a contentious and crowded primary.

“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 kicked off her own campaign last month, echoed these sentiments, pointing out that the party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

Though just, our cause has not inspired the support of a sizable segment of the American public. This is now over. Put your faith in the next generation if you’re sick of losing. “Stand with me if you want to win, not just as a party but as a country,” Haley pleaded.

She was greeted with polite applause throughout her speech, but she was met with chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as she left the venue.

It was a reflection of the tension in the room, where declared and potential challengers were trying to make inroads at a conference that has grown increasingly associated with the former president. His son Donald Trump Jr. has been mobbed by excited fans all over the conference, and while other declared and likely candidates were offered speaking slots, Trump has been given top billing as the Saturday evening headliner.

Even though CPAC used to be a mandatory stop for Republican presidential candidates, this year only a small number of them made the trip. Haley and Pompeo were among them.

This year’s event was overshadowed by controversy and its overt homage to Trump, prompting several high-profile politicians to skip it, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

Like Haley, Pompeo blamed the Republican Party for its recent electoral losses.

After several races that should have been won, we finally conceded. It’s because people didn’t have faith in us to do better than the tax-and-spend liberals,” he said, echoing a criticism voiced by some in the audience. Both the Republican and Democratic administrations in recent history have added trillions to the national debt. It’s extremely radical.

Voters, he argued more broadly, had “lost trust in conservative ideas.”
Defeat is a bad thing because defeat is a bad thing. But the values we uphold are the ones in jeopardy. Plus, it’s not a matter of politics. The losses are just the tip of the iceberg, though. The conservative movement is in crisis, he declared. We no longer feel certain of being correct.

Pompeo told The Associated Press before his speech that he was attending this year’s event because it would give him the opportunity to speak to “a great group of people who represent a broad swath of our party.”

Because the 2024 presidential election is over a year and a half away, he downplayed the significance of Saturday’s unscientific straw poll of CPAC attendees on their preferred candidate. Trump is widely expected to win the poll.

A lot of work needs to be done. Pompeo remarked, “There’s a lot to do, and I think whoever decides to get in the race will have a lot of opportunity to make their case in the fall. I have participated in a straw vote. I think I’ve succeeded admirably. Compared to others, I have not accomplished as much. It doesn’t tell me much about how this will conclude, if anything.
Pompeo, one of many possible candidates, has not yet decided whether or not to run against his former boss for the nomination.

The family was “still working our way through, figuring it out,” he said, adding that they were “now within a couple months of a decision.” To prepare to make the case to the American people, “we’re doing all the things one would do,” Pompeo said.

It seems unlikely that President Biden would be someone I could get behind,” Pompeo quipped when asked if he would back the eventual Republican nominee.

While Trump has said he will support his former boss if he is the party’s nominee in 2024, Vice President Pence declined to say Thursday whether he would do the same.

“I think we’ll have better choices,” Pence told The Associated Press in an interview in South Carolina. In 2016, I am convinced that no one other than Donald Trump could have defeated Hillary Clinton, but I believe that we now live in a different time that requires a different kind of leadership.
In a potential showdown with candidates like Trump, who has threatened to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent if he does not win the GOP nomination outright, the Republican National Committee has announced plans to bar candidates from participating in its primary debates unless they sign a pledge to support the GOP’s ultimate presidential nominee.

Technology entrepreneur and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy spoke at the convention on Friday, and later told the Associated Press that he saw himself as Trump’s successor.

Ramaswamy claimed, “I’m building on the foundation he laid,” before promising to put more effort into ending affirmative action and reducing the effects of climate change than his predecessor. He added, “if everybody else makes that commitment,” he would vote for the Republican nominee.

The influential anti-tax group Club For Growth, which has clashed with Trump, held a competing event in Florida, to which DeSantis and others were invited but Trump was not, a stark illustration of some in the party’s conservative flank seeking a new direction while the Trump faithful gathered in Maryland.

Club For Growth president David McIntosh said in an interview published Friday that in DeSantis’s Thursday night speech kicking off the organization’s donor summit, DeSantis did not address the question of whether or not he would run for president but instead spoke at length about policy issues.

McIntosh noted that while the president-elect had “talked a lot” about his recent election victory, he had “not indicated anything one way or the other” about a possible 2020 presidential run.

About 150 people listened to DeSantis talk about his record as governor of Florida and his plans for the future of the state.

McIntosh stated that Pence, who was present, did not give any indication as to when he might decide whether to run for president. Besides Haley and Scott, Ramaswamy was also scheduled to make an appearance in Florida.