Haley heckled as Trump movement asserts its dominance at shrunken CPAC

Nikki Haley announcement of her presidential run for 2024. Photo: Twitter @nikkihaley

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley stepped into the hallway after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday to supporters asking for selfies and autographs – and, from others, a less friendly greeting.

“We love Trump, we love Trump!” a crowd around her started chanting. Some Haley supporters shouted her name back as the former U.N. ambassador escaped with staff to an elevator.

The dust-up showed the risks of taking the primary fight to what has clearly become Trump’s home turf. Though CPAC has long been seen as a big-tent forum for the conservative movement and a mandatory cattle call for presidential hopefuls, the annual conference has increasingly grown into a stomping ground for the 45th president and his “Make America Great Again” wing of the GOP. Trump will speak at the event Saturday.

“Remember, you’re not at CPAC, you’re at TPAC,” John Fredericks, a pro-Trump talk radio host broadcasting from the sidelines here, said in an interview Wednesday. He said potential 2024 rivals opted to skip the conference rather than risk getting booed or losing the straw poll. “We own this thing, it’s ours,” he said. “No Trump, no CPAC.”

This year’s lineup was heavy with Trump family members and acolytes – such as Lara Trump, Donald Trump Jr., former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, losing 2022 Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) – to the near-total exclusion of the party’s other voices.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who polls show as Trump’s biggest competitor for the 2024 primary though he has not yet announced whether he is running, opted to spend the week far away at his own events promoting his new book.

In past years, campaigns-in-waiting have organized to pack the event with supporters in the hopes of a strong showing in an informal survey of attendees, known as the CPAC straw poll. Trump beat DeSantis in last year’s straw poll 59 percent to 28 percent, and slightly widened his advantage at a CPAC in Texas last August, winning 64 percent to 24 percent.

Privately, Trump supporters acknowledge that anything less than a double-digit margin in this year’s poll would be an embarrassing result for the former president. As for DeSantis, Republican strategists including Karl Rove praised the governor for going his own way rather than contesting Trump in the CPAC straw poll.

Ronald Solomon, president of conservative product wholesaler “the MAGA Mall,” blanketed folding tables at the gathering with Trump-themed flags, lines of hats and other knickknacks. At the far end of the display, he had laid out a row of DeSantis caps. Those were not his big sellers, he explained. “It’s about 50 to one over DeSantis,” he said of Trump hat sales.

CPAC’s alignment with Trump, at a moment when his grip on the party appears less certain than before the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms, when many candidates he helped elevate lost in key races, contributed to a shrunken footprint for this year’s conference. The event was also beset by scandal, as CPAC chief Matt Schlapp was accused of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. The organization has also been struggling with a staff exodus and a pending discrimination complaint, The Washington Post has found.

The toll on this week’s conference was visible in the sparsely filled ballroom and exhibition hall. The Fox Nation streaming service did not return as a sponsor this year, ceding the media row to scrappier, Trumpier upstarts such as Newsmax and Real America’s Voice. The showroom featured several Trump apparel vendors, a booth for the John Birch Society, and two organizations advocating for defendants in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Among the liveliest exhibition booths belonged to the pro-Trump super PAC called MAGA Inc., which set up a mock Oval Office complete with resolute desk where fans could take their picture in a Trumpian pose, and a studio set to broadcast live podcasts featuring Trump Jr., his fiancee, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker. Trump Jr., in his speech on the main stage, said that hidden under some seats were golden tickets to a special reception with the former president.

Part of the ballroom was partitioned off and parts of the floor were left bare. Even so, only about half the seats were filled when Haley took the stage.

The audience stood for Haley, giving her a polite but tepid reception. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley presented her upbringing as “proof that the liberals are wrong about everything they say about America” and “America is not a racist country.” She named former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as one of her heroes, and called China “the strongest and most disciplined enemy we’ve ever faced.”

Haley got her loudest cheers for calling to end foreign aid to “countries that hate America,” echoing a statement she’s made before that mischaracterizes the process of U.S. foreign aid, which often goes to American companies or never leaves the country.

One of the people who joined the heckling of Haley after she spoke was Kim Shourds, who questioned Haley’s conservative credentials and called her a “RINO.” Shourds, a Virginia resident, planned to vote for Trump in the primary and scoffed at a suggestion that Haley could be a running mate.

A few people shouted back “Haley!” in response to the heckling.

Joseph Stillwell, a college student who plans to vote for Trump, had just received an autograph from Haley on his convention badge when the heckling began. He shouted “shut up!” at women he saw joining the chanting. “You don’t act like that,” he said.

As Haley got into an elevator with her staff, Jay Denney, who identified as a conservative from Canada, shouted at her: “Canada loves you, Nikki.” He said the shouting was “completely unacceptable.”

Another possible 2024 rival, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, got a warmer initial reception but generated little cheers with a speech focusing on his biography and principles, in contrast to Haley’s red-meat social issues. He avoided directly criticizing Trump, with only one oblique reference to “celebrity leaders” with “tragic egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”

When it came to the absence of DeSantis, at least one attendee was not eager to weigh in. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez sidestepped questions from a reporter about it and the focus on Trump.

“I don’t have an opinion on that,” he said of DeSantis. “I’m here to talk about Miami.” Asked who he backed in CPAC straw poll, Suarez said himself and laughed.



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