ORLANDO, Florida — Former President Donald Trump has gone from reject to ruler of the roost at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists.
That inescapable reality hung over the opening day of the Conservative Political Action here in Florida.
Donald Trump Jr. joked the confab could be rebranded as “TPAC.”
Activists, meanwhile, rolled around a golden statue of Mr. Trump and sported masks reading “Trump: I’ll be back,” and possible contenders for the 2024 presidential nomination fawned over the 45th president.
Sen. Ted Cruz said the Washington establishment wishes it could “erase the last four years” of Mr. Trump and turn back the clock to a time when “Republican’s compelling message was: Republicans! We waste less!”
“They look at Donald J. Trump and they look at the millions and millions of people inspired, who went to battle fighting alongside President Trump and they are terrified and they want him to go away,” Mr. Cruz said. “But let me tell you this right now, Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere.”
The race to embrace Mr. Trump comes after the GOP lost control of the House, Senate and White House on his watch.
And it represents a seismic shift from four years ago when he passed on the chance to address the conference after activists threatened to stage a walkout in protest.
They didn’t see him as a conservative. They said his rude and crude behavior was at odds with the movement.
Mr. Trump went on to win over his critics with his Supreme Court picks, tax cuts and crackdown on illegal immigration.
Mr. Trump on Sunday is slated to address CPAC, marking his first political appearance since he left the White House.
Despite his electoral setback, Republicans across the country are now hoping the Trump rock-star appeal rubs off on them.
Kicking off the conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested he is cast from the same populist mold as Mr. Trump. The governor voiced Trump-style opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns, amnesty for illegal immigrants and military adventurism. He touted his “decisive action” to keep schools open, bolster election integrity and combat “political censorship.”
“We cannot, we will not go back to the days of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We reject open borders and instead support American sovereignty and the American worker. Building a movement on amnesty and cheap foreign labor is like building a house on a field of quicksand.”
Sen. Josh Hawley received a loud ovation after touting his objection to the certification of electoral votes — which some blamed for helping to fuel the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — as a badge of honor.
“Maybe you heard about it?” the Missouri Republican said with a grin. “I was called a traitor, I was called a sedition, the radical left said I should resign, and if I wouldn’t resign, I should be expelled from the U.S. Senate.”
Mr. Hawley said, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate GOP, said Mr. Trump showed “guts” by thumbing his nose at the “Washington establishment” and its views on trade, immgiration and political correctness.
“We will not win the future by trying to go back to where the Republican Party used to be,” Mr. Scott said. “If we do, we will lose the working base that President Trump so animated. We are going to lose elections across the country and ultimately we are going to lose our nation.”
“We are not going to let that happen,” he said.
Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a candidate for the Ohio Senate, got a rise out of the crowd after describing himself as “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump” and describing Mr. Trump as the leader of the party.
“My fellow patriots, don’t be shy and don’t be sorry,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. “Join me as we proudly represent the pro-Trump, America-first wing of the conservative movement.
“We are not really a wing, we are a whole body,” he said. “We are the main attraction in the greatest show on Earth.”
Mr. Gaetz also doubled down on his attacks against Rep. Liz Cheney, who has been criticized for voting to impeach Mr. Trump but easily defeated an effort to remove her from House GOP leadership.
“Speaking of people who ought to lose primaries, if Liz Cheney were on this stage today, she’d get booed off of it?” Mr. Gaetz said.
• Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.
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