Ambitious Republicans’ Dance: Embrace Trump, but Don’t Try to Be Him

ORLANDO, Fla. — Theoretically, Senator Tom Cotton was hitting the right notes.

Midway through his speech to hundreds of conservative activists on Friday, Mr. Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, channeled former President Donald J. Trump as he castigated President Biden’s immigration policies. “They have halted deportations for all illegal aliens,” Mr. Cotton said gravely, and falsely. “Murderers, rapists, terrorists, MS-13 gang members are not being deported.”

His cadence quickened: “They stopped building a wall around our border, and they put up a wall around your United States Capitol.” He thundered on: “And right now,” he said misleadingly, “right now, as we speak, they are literally tracking down illegal aliens in Mexico who Donald Trump turned away, to invite them to come back.”

Finally, the big reveal: “That’s not catch-and-release,” Mr. Cotton intoned, “that’s recruit-and-release!”

And then — nothing.

Well, almost nothing. A few polite titters rippled through the ballroom. But in the half-second of awkward energy that followed, it seemed clear that Mr. Cotton’s wordplay — his attempt to repurpose Mr. Biden’s reversal of a Trump-era policy on asylum seekers as a quippy, critical slogan — had not landed as he’d hoped.

For ambitious Republicans like Mr. Cotton who are mulling a presidential bid, a challenging and at times uncomfortable audition is underway this winter: trying to use the Trump political playbook to impress and inherit the former president’s supporters — all while navigating the limitation of not being Mr. Trump.

Some Republicans have been using appearances on Fox News and far-right news outlets to test messages and hone their political pitches, as well as firing off social media posts and delivering remarks at the Capitol to try to engage the right. Last weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., where Mr. Cotton and other Republican leaders-in-waiting spoke, was the most visible stage yet for these politicians — not to mention where they confronted the most scrutiny.

CPAC has typically represented a small slice of the Republican electorate, but in the past four years, as Mr. Trump’s polarizing leadership prompted a slew of defections by more moderate party members, the gathering has become a closer reflection of the party’s base.

And in interviews, dozens of attendees signaled the contradictions that future presidential candidates would need to embody to win their support. The attendees said they were most drawn to Republicans who both pledged fealty to Mr. Trump and appeared to showcase a distinct political identity — figures like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida; Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri; and Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state.

And while they expected the party’s next star to be a “fighter” in the mold of Mr. Trump, they also bristled at speakers who seemed as if they were trying to mimic him outright — like Mr. Cotton and Senator Rick Scott of Florida.

“It’s like Hellmann’s mayonnaise — you can’t imitate it, man,” said Waverly Woods, 54, a Republican activist from Virginia Beach. “You’re either real mayonnaise, or you’re not.”

Much of Mr. Cotton’s CPAC address seemed like imitation, with the senator invoking many of the grievances popularized by Mr. Trump — “cancel culture,” critical race theory — yet struggling to elicit the same emotional response.

Mr. Cotton, who notched one percentage point in the conference’s non-Trump straw poll of possible 2024 presidential candidates, was not the only Republican hopeful who struggled to resonate, despite adopting Mr. Trump’s language. Even on his home turf, Mr. Scott, who governed the state from 2011 to 2019 and recently became the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, appeared to gain little traction.

During his 17-minute address on Friday, Mr. Scott, a former venture capitalist whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, took aim at the establishment, gender pronouns and “safe spaces” before moving on to China. He referred to the moment shortly after the election when President Xi Jinping congratulated Mr. Biden and expressed hope for a “win-win” relationship.

“Oh, there’s going to be a ‘win-win,’” Mr. Scott said. “Hunter Biden’s going to win and get richer” — and here Mr. Scott paused for a reaction that never came — “as Communist China wins and becomes the most powerful country in the world.”

As with Mr. Cotton, none of those interviewed regarded Mr. Scott negatively; most people, and even some Floridians who said they had voted for him in 2018, simply strained to remember him. But their apathy toward such politicians was a function of more than any one personal drawback. With 95 percent of CPAC attendees indicating their continued support for Mr. Trump’s agenda, expressions of solidarity were not exceptional but expected. As a result, many people flocked last weekend to Republicans who offered another dimension to their pitch.

Harrison Rogers, an entrepreneur from Arizona, said that conservatives were “over” pro-Trump talk alone. “Show us what you’re actually doing,” he said, “rather than just saying you can stand up to the media and stand up to the whoever.”

During an event marked by steady gripes about mask-wearing, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Noem were almost guaranteed to resonate. As governor of Florida, Mr. DeSantis has been an outspoken advocate of keeping schools and businesses open during the pandemic.

Ms. Noem also shot to prominence in Republican circles for refusing to enforce a statewide mask mandate, stay-at-home orders or business closures in South Dakota. Both were the non-Trump favorites in the conference’s straw poll.

Mr. Rogers, 32, said he was “star-struck” when he saw Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Noem up close. “They’re governors that really handled last year courageously and very unpopularly as far as what the media kind of expected,” he said. “And for them to come out and just continue to stick with their beliefs — they showed that you don’t have to be terrified when the nation and the media are pointing out your potential risks or bad decisions.”

“Cancel culture is real,” Mr. Rogers added.

Roughly a year after the emergence of the coronavirus in the United States, South Dakota has the eighth-highest death rate in the country, and more than one in 500 residents have died of Covid-19. But at CPAC, Ms. Noem was given a hero’s welcome.

“Oh, my whole family loves Kristi — sort of like with Ron,” Conner Dyess, 18, who traveled to Orlando from Jackson, Miss., said at the conclusion of his first CPAC. “She’s put the power of being able to choose and trust in her people,” he went on.“She’s just a rising star.”

Armed with more than just a senator’s voting record, governors often have an early edge in presidential contests. But in a moment when almost every prominent Republican — from governors to lawmakers to Fox News personalities — has adopted Mr. Trump’s pledge to “fight,” conservative attendees said they now wanted tales from the front lines.

It was the difference between the dutiful laughter when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas cracked jokes about wearing masks in restaurants, and the uproarious applause when Ms. Noem boasted about refusing to shut down her state. She had not just criticized the recommendations of infectious-disease experts like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci; she had actively defied them.

Mr. Hawley made strides this weekend for similar reasons. While Mr. Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, also delivered riffs on cancel culture and immigration, he distinguished himself by reminding the audience of his objection to the Electoral College certification of Mr. Biden’s victory. He framed himself as a martyr, describing how a “woke mob” had tried to “cancel me, censor me, expel me, shut me down.”

For Mr. Dyess, the speech affirmed his belief that Mr. Hawley had a “backbone.” He also appreciated that the senator seemed to have the right enemies: “You know,” he said, “the media is now really on Josh Hawley.”

Mr. Pompeo had the advantage of being one of the few Trump administration officials on the agenda at CPAC. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, both declined to attend. While some attendees shrugged at their absence, others said they would have appreciated hearing from Mr. Pence.

“I do think he should’ve stood up for Trump,” said Mindy Salinas, 41, a CPAC volunteer and a member of the Los Angeles Hispanic Republican Club, referring to Mr. Trump’s urging his vice president not to certify Mr. Biden’s election, a constitutional duty. “But it would’ve been nice for him to give his views on what life was like being vice president of our country.”

Mr. Pompeo, who served as both secretary of state and C.I.A. director, thus had a wide berth for emphasizing his role in an administration that he argued had “truly upended the status quo.”

Ms. Woods said she liked that Mr. Pompeo seemed to be “his own man.”

“He is a very strong alpha male that’s not going to put up with any shenanigans,” she added.

Yet even as dozens of CPAC attendees described their favorite speakers in terms of their independence from Mr. Trump, almost all were quick to clarify their preference for the man himself.

Mr. Rogers said that he, like other Trump supporters, had been relieved to finally hear from the former president after weeks of quiet since he left office. “I just feel like we needed some clarity and direction, and we got it.”

In other words, Ms. Woods said, their leader was back. “It was one of my favoritest CPACs ever!” she gushed. “My first reaction about this CPAC is Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, TRUMP!”

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