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At CPAC, Trump Returns To Public Stage

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump has reemerged onto the public scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Hello, CPAC. Do you miss me yet? Do you miss me?

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, this was his first on-stage appearance since leaving office. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us us now to tell us more about it.

Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hello, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, what was Trump's main message today?

MONTANARO: Well, so far, he has attacked the Biden administration. You know, that's kind of an interesting thing, given that so far, up to this point, there hadn't been a ton of taking on Joe Biden in particular. A lot of the CPAC attendees sort of having difficulty kind of figuring out what it should be. Trump is giving them plenty of ammunition. Let's take a listen to a little bit of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history. That's true.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Already, the Biden administration has proven that they are anti-jobs, anti-family, anti-borders, anti-energy, anti-women and anti-science.

MONTANARO: Well, that's a lot of anti- things. But what the main thrust of his criticism was on immigration. And we know that that has always been, you know, a animating factor of Trump's politics, the sort of nativist politics, that he's reminding the crowd that this culture fight is one that he wants to take on, saying that Biden is going to be releasing criminals into American society, very similar to even how he started his very first speech in 2015 when he launched his campaign.

He made some news saying that he would not be starting a third party. Remember; there were some rumors and some reporting about that. He said instead, he'd be fighting this through the Republican Party, which is firmly in his grasp, just based on how the attendees have reacted at CPAC over the last several days. He teased that he even might run again. He claimed that Democrats just lost the White House. Who knows? I may decide to beat them for a third time, he claimed, even though we know that that's false. And he's hitting Biden on not wanting to open schools right away. And he really is trying, Michel, to reestablish himself as the main force in the Republican Party.

MARTIN: Well, you could hear the applause when he took the stage. But there was also a straw poll as well, which was a survey of the people who attended this conference. What were the findings?

MONTANARO: You know, it was interesting because this CPAC has been all about Trump, and he easily won it. You know, he got 55% of the vote. It was even presented by his pollster (laughter). You know, and he had a 97% approval rating. But that 55% is interesting because I think some of us seeing how overwhelmingly pro-Trump this CPAC has been thought it might be actually higher than that. But he clearly has the heart of this party still with him.

What jumps out, though, underneath a lot of that is what happens if Trump doesn't run. And it's the rise we're seeing of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who got about 1 in 5 votes, 21% of the CPAC attendees. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem also kind of spiked once Trump's name was taken out of it. She wound up in double digits - pretty notable, you know, somebody who's a South Dakota governor. She's not someone who gets a lot of national media attention because of where her state is.

And people like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, those two senators who've gotten so much attention for their role in objection to - objecting to the election results, were down at really 1 or 2%. The poll also showed us that for this group, election integrity was the top issue. But I don't think it's election integrity in the same way that, you know, mainstream people think about it. They firmly believe that this election was taken from President Trump, believing his false allegations and misleading claims about widespread election fraud that just didn't happen.

MARTIN: So you've said in looking ahead to this conference that it appeared it would just ignore the rift that has emerged after the mob attack on the Capitol that - you know, of course, in which former President Trump clearly played a role. But what did you mean by that?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, it's - because this is Trump's party. I mean, you know, something like three-quarters or more of Republicans really are on board Trump. You know, they are on this Trump train. Seventy percent of them said that they want - that they'd be happy for him to run again.

You know, this is where the direction of the Republican Party is going. There's no equal divide. It's a bit of a false equivalence to say that it's an equal divide. People like Liz Cheney, who voted for Trump's impeachment, are in the slim minority, frankly, of a party that wants to be serious taking on problems and solving problems for the country. That's - this party is a party of Trump cultural grievance.

MARTIN: And clearly, what's interesting to us - who didn't speak as well, like Utah Senator Mitt Romney, like Liz Cheney, for example, the former vice president, Mike Pence. And what about Mitch McConnell, briefly, Domenico?

MONTANARO: Yeah, McConnell's not there. He got in that very public feud with Trump, although he said this week he could vote for him again if he's the nominee.

MARTIN: That is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.