Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley take veiled jabs at Donald Trump at CPAC

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Two top Republicans took a jab at former President Donald Trump at an annual gathering of conservatives Friday, blasting “celebrity leaders” out of touch with reality while noting that winning elections had been lost as they urged a partisan course correction ahead of the presidential contest. of 2024.

But their refusal to call him by name underscored the risks the potential faces and said challengers worry about alienating Trump’s loyal base.

In their remarks, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley — who both served in the Trump administration — offered a snapshot of how the former president’s declared and potential 2024 opponents are trying to delicately navigate his dominant role in the party while looking for ways to differentiate themselves in what could be an ugly and crowded primary race.

“We cannot become leftists, following celebrity leaders with their own 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 launched her campaign last month, hit on similar themes, noting that the party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

“Our cause is right, but we have not been able to win the trust of the majority of Americans. This ends now. If you are tired of losing, trust a new generation. And if you want to win – not just as a party, but as a country – then stand with me,” Haley said.

While she received a standing ovation throughout her speech, several in the audience chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as he walked through the venue.

It was a sign of the disunity at the event as potential and declared challengers tried to make inroads in a gathering closely aligned with the former president. While other declared and presumptive candidates were offered speaking slots, Trump received top billing as the Saturday afternoon headliner, and his son Donald Trump Jr. was mobbed throughout the convention by excited fans.

Haley and Pompeo were among the few announced or potential Republican presidential candidates to attend the CPAC event, which was once a must for GOP candidates but has been less of a draw this year.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSandis, former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina skipped the event this year, as it has been marred by controversy and overt tributes to Trump.

Like Haley, Pompeo noted recent Republican losses over the years and blamed the party for its weaknesses.

“We lost match after winning match. It’s because the voters didn’t trust us to do better than the tax-and-spend liberals,” he said, echoing criticism voiced by some in the audience. “Every recent administration, Republican and Democratic, has added trillions of dollars to our debt. This is profoundly anti-conservative.”

More broadly, he said voters had “lost confidence in conservative ideas.”

“Losing is bad because losing is bad. But the principles we stand for are what are really at stake. And it’s not a political problem. The problem is that the losses are a symptom of something much bigger. It’s a crisis in conservatism,” he said. “We have lost confidence that we are right.”

In an interview before his speech, Pompeo told The Associated Press that he chose to attend this year’s event because it is “a great group of people who represent a broad spectrum of our party.”

He downplayed the importance of Saturday’s poll of CPAC attendees on their 2024 presidential preference, an unscientific survey that Trump is expected to win, while noting that the election is more than a year and a half away.

“There is a long way to go. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I think everyone who decides to enter the race will have plenty of opportunities in the fall to make their case,” Pompeo said. “I have participated in the polls. I did great. I have done less great things. I don’t think it says much about how this is going to end.”

Pompeo, one of a long list of potential candidates, said he was still mulling a decision on whether to challenge his former boss for the nomination.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” he said, adding that he and his family were “now within two months of the decision.” Meanwhile, “we’re doing all the things one would do to be ready to make the case to the American people,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo also said without hesitation that he would support the eventual Republican nominee, laughing: “It seems unlikely that President Biden is someone I could get behind.”

That contrasts with Pence, who declined to say Thursday whether he would support his former boss if Trump ends up the party’s pick in 2024.

“I think we’re going to have better options,” Pence told The Associated Press in an interview in South Carolina. “I’m convinced that no one could beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 except Donald Trump, but I think we’re living in a different era and it requires different leadership.”

The Republican National Committee plans to bar candidates from its primary debates if they do not sign a pledge to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee, setting up a potential clash with candidates including Trump, who has raised the possibility that leave the Republican Party and launch an independent run if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination outright.

Vivek Ramaswamy, technology entrepreneur and author of “Woke, Inc.” who is also running for president, spoke at the convention on Friday and told the AP later in an interview that he saw himself as Trump’s successor.

“I’m building on the foundation he laid,” Ramaswamy said, adding that he would focus more on ending affirmative action and mitigating climate change than the former president. He also said he would support the eventual GOP nominee “if everyone else makes that commitment.”

While Trump loyalists gathered in Maryland, the powerful anti-tax group Club For Growth, which has clashed with Trump, held a rally in Florida where DeSantis and others were invited but Trump was not — a stark illustration of some from the conservative side of the party looking for a new direction.

David McIntosh, president of Club For Growth, said in an interview Friday that DeSantis, who kicked off the club’s sponsor summit with a speech Thursday night, did not say whether he would run for president and instead he focused his remarks on policy issues.

“He talked a lot about winning the last election, but he hasn’t shown anything one way or the other about a presidential run,” McIntosh said.

He said DeSantis was enthusiastically received by a crowd of about 150 people and talked about his record in Florida and his vision for governing the state.

McIntosh said Pence, also at the event, did not indicate when he might make a decision on whether to run for president. Haley, Scott and Ramaswamy were also scheduled to speak in Florida.

Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.

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