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US Republican party in the long shadow of Trump at conference

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Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference 2022 (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday. AFP

US Republican party in the long shadow of Trump at conference

Donald Trump may have lost the last US election and be under investigation over the 2021 Capitol riot, but the former president’s dominance remains undented in the Republican party, where he is virtually unchallenged.

The 75-year-old billionaire spoke on February 26 at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida – an opportunity to gild his popularity.

Even before his arrival at the hotel hosting the conference, Trump’s presence is felt in the numerous red “Make America Great Again” hats and in speeches, like that of Senator Ted Cruz, rife with taunts and attacks on figures reviled by conservatives.

“Trump is so popular that whatever position he takes most Republicans feel that they have to go along with them or at least not overly criticise them,” Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said.

“Because if they do, the president is going to take political revenge.”

Trump’s influence looms large as midterm legislative elections approach in November, with the political risks to Republicans who don’t fall in line implied in some of his statements.

Last month, Trump suggested he might pardon those who participated in the January 6 assault on the US Capitol if he were reelected president, a provocative proposal met with little pushback from Republicans save a handful, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who said those who stormed the seat of US democracy to stop the certification of Democratic President Joe Biden’s election win needed to be held accountable.

The former president continues to insist the election was stolen, despite 50 per cent of Republican voters wanting to put those accusations aside and look to the future, according to a Politico poll published earlier this month.

“I think many of the Republican leaders, including a lot of campaign managers, would rather put that behind them,” Jewett said.

“They don’t see it as the future of the party. They’d rather not talk about any issues that could be controversial with voters.”

But Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, underscored that Trump “is still a person whose endorsement is sought after, especially in the most conservatives areas”.

She added, however, that “we are increasingly seeing that some of the language and tone things don’t work as well with woman voters. And they are often the swing voters”.

Trump’s dominance is such that few other leading voices stand out in the party, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appearing to be the only possible exception.

On February 24, DeSantis’ CPAC speech, in which he again criticised Biden and presented himself as a defender of individual freedom against a heavy-handed federal government, was met with cheers and applause.

Some of his policies in Florida, such as prohibiting Covid-19 mask mandates in schools, made him a favourite of media like Fox News.

While DeSantis hasn’t said he’s aiming for the White House, he also hasn’t ruled it out even if Trump runs.

A poll released last week by the University of North Florida found that among Republicans registered in the state, the governor is almost neck and neck with Trump as a favourite for president.

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