Appearing at CPAC, Trump’s VP Contenders Speak to an Audience of One

Influential Republicans vying to be Donald Trump’s vice-presidential running mate appeared at a conservative conference near Washington, auditioning for the spot at Trump’s side on the campaign trail with fire and flattery.

Five people seen as contenders in the “Apprentice”-like spectacle made appearances Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC: Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio; Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York; Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Kari Lake, a Senate candidate in Arizona who rose to prominence with a full-throated embrace of Trump’s stolen election lies; and conservative former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

The contenders appeared to understand that they had an audience of one in Trump. Their approaches differed, but their speeches were similar in tone and content: underscoring their loyalty through effusive praise and scorching rhetoric for the base, while portraying the former president, who faces 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases, as a martyr for Republicans.

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Stefanik, a onetime moderate Republican whose reinvention as a close Trump ally has helped elevate her to a position in the House leadership, made a point of aggressively defending Trump for his legal troubles. She played up the Republican-led congressional inquiries into President Joe Biden and his son Hunter by repeatedly referring to them as the “Biden crime family” even as much of the testimony in the Biden cases has been called into question.

“The closer President Trump gets to victory, the dirtier the Democrats, their stenographers in the media and the corrupt prosecutors will get. They will stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, in their attempt to steal this next election,” Stefanik said.

She also sought to cast herself as an early supporter of Trump despite her earlier private criticism of him as a disaster for the Republican Party. Trump and his campaign have signaled that loyalty and deference to the former president are key qualities.

On the eve of the South Carolina primary, and ahead of other crucial presidential contests on March 5, Super Tuesday, Trump and his campaign have invited speculation about his potential running mate as a way to project an inevitability to his candidacy, and steer attention away from Nikki Haley, his insurgent rival in the presidential race.

In interviews, CPAC attendees offered varying opinions about whom Trump should pick, with some highlighting unapologetic Trump acolytes like Ramaswamy and Stefanik. But many also qualified their choices by saying they would be happy with whichever candidate Trump selected.

“I don’t have a huge opinion,” said Mitch Boggs, a state representative from Missouri, adding that Stefanik would be his personal pick. But, he said, “I want Trump to pick who he wants to pick.”

Vance, sitting for an interview with a host from the conservative news channel Newsmax, on the convention’s main stage said that “Donald Trump is maybe the first politician in my lifetime who will be much poorer for having served his country. That is the best evidence that we should reelect him in 2024, he has sacrificed for his country.” (Before the enormous penalties from the civil cases against him, Trump profited from his private businesses both during his presidency and after he left office.)

The Ohio senator also focused during the interview on his opposition to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, an isolationist policy view he shares with Trump. He had harsh words for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, accusing him of caring more about the war in Ukraine than about domestic problems in his own state.

“You need to look in the mirror and accept that your job has been a failure,” Vance said. “You’ve been a failure at your job.”

Noem highlighted her early endorsement of Trump in the 2024 contest, and said that she declined to run for president because she knew no one could beat Trump in a primary, prompting applause when she said, “He’s the only person who has the support to be the Republican nominee.” She also delivered a dark message that emulated the divisive rhetoric of Trump.

“There are two kinds of people in this country right now. There are people who love America, and there are those who hate America,” she said.

Ramaswamy appeared at a dinner event for CPAC later in the evening, wielding much of the same fiery rhetoric he brought to the campaign trail. Ramaswamy dropped out of the race after a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

“We are in the middle of a war in this country,” Ramaswamy said. “I call this a war because there’s no middle ground here.” He went on: “It is a war between those of us who love the United States of America and our founding ideals and a fringe minority who hates this country and what we stand for.”

Lake did not appear on the main stage, instead participating on a panel hosted by the far-right television channel Real America’s Voice on the convention floor. She also echoed Trump’s isolationist views on aid to Ukraine, saying that the United States had to stop sending money overseas.

Berney Flowers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel running for Congress in Maryland, listed Ramaswamy, Lake, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Tulsi Gabbard, a former member of Congress from Hawaii who left the Democratic Party to become a political independent, as possible contenders he would support.

“We need the fire,” he said, though he added, “Any one of those people I would be happy to get behind.”

The conference will conclude Saturday with the group’s traditional straw poll. For the first time in at least a decade, the survey will include a question about vice-presidential preferences, asking attendees to pick the best running mate for Trump.

It is a very different selection process from the one in 2016, when Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate just days before the Republican National Convention. At the time, Trump was still very much an outsider in the Republican Party and had to work to fend off attempts to derail his nomination and incite a contested convention. Going against his instincts, which would have favored a deferential running mate who would aggressively defend him against his many critics, Trump settled on Pence in an effort to unite the party.

Now, Trump might as well be the Republican Party, and he is likely to favor the candidates who are most deferential to him even as he weighs factors such as whether a woman or a person of color could help win voters in the general election.

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