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Trump’s potential VPs turn on the flattery

In World
February 24, 2024

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – The 2024 veepstakes have fully morphed into a test of who can lavish the most praise on Donald Trump.

More than a half-dozen Republicans with aspirations to be the former president’s running mate took the stage Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering just outside Washington that draws thousands of MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters. While there, they took turns showing their reverence for the former president – with each putting their own unique spin on it.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem took aim at those who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination — a group that includes two ousted primary candidates-turned-vice presidential prospects: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. “Why did all these other people and candidates get into the race?” she asked. “For themselves? For personal benefit? For a spotlight for a period of time?”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) repeatedly yoked herself to the former president, calling her upstate New York district “Trump and Elise Country,” and stating that, like Trump, she had been “underestimated … at every turn.”

Then there was Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, who likened Trump to sports greats like Michael Jordan, Bill Belichik and Tom Brady — figures who he said were “tough” and “held everybody accountable.”

“We’ve got to have leadership that’s willing to say tough things when we need to hear them, and we have that leadership this November in Donald J. Trump,” Donalds added.

Presidential candidates have long valued loyalty in determining who their VPs would be. But those looking to be Trump’s No. 2 recognize that he particularly prizes that trait.

Trump split bitterly with his vice president, Mike Pence, after Pence refused his orders to not certify the 2020 presidential election results. And as the VP search process kicks off, there are strong indications loyalty is on Trump’s mind. The former president has also privately complained recently about former allies who either didn’t endorse him in the primary or who held out until late.

All of which has laid the groundwork for a VP selection process that would be relatively unique in modern political history. Unlike past presidential contenders who picked their running mate based on factors like regional appeal or where they stood ideologically, Trump — who chose Pence in 2016 in part to make inroads among evangelicals — now seems just as keen on finding a running mate who reaffirms his political id as one who could, in theory, round out the ticket.

“I’ve talked to him about the kind of pain he went through because of the people who he thought were on his team. They write books, they get CNN contracts,” said CPAC Chair Matt Schlapp, a longtime Trump ally who oversees the conference. “I don’t think he’s interested in conducting a lot of experiments on loyalty. I think it’s going to be very important to him in key positions.”

The veepstakes were top of mind for attendees gathered at CPAC, not least because the conference’s annual straw poll is centered on who should be Trump’s pick, with the results set to be announced on Saturday afternoon. While the straw poll results are if anything unscientific, the famously poll-obsessed Trump has long taken an interest in the conference’s yearly survey, according to Schlapp.

“He’s always talked to me about the straw poll, he cares about the questions that are in it,” said Schlapp. “If they get 1 percent in the poll, I don’t think it helps their chances, that’s how I look at it.”

The former president is set to speak Saturday afternoon, just before the straw poll results are to be announced.

Trump has given little indication of who he is favoring for VP, though he has said he is looking for someone who can step into the role of president if needed. The list of candidates often discussed has given some signs of where he and his team are heading. Women and politicians of color make up a major share of the names. And Trump himself recently praised two of them: Stefanik and Scott.

When asked by Fox News host Laura Ingraham if his shortlist includes former Democratic Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Donalds, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Noem and Ramaswamy, Trump said it did.

While Scott was not present at CPAC, he has spent the final days leading up to Saturday’s South Carolina primary campaigning with the former president.

The CPAC conference was one of the first auditions for those eager to nab the post — with VP contenders working aggressively to win over the pro-Trump crowd. Trump’s former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson touched upon a cause célèbre among the attendees: The fate of the Jan. 6 rioters who are now imprisoned. Carson drew applause when he said that law enforcement had “let hardened criminals out of jail while peaceful pro-life protesters and patriotic grandmothers who walked into the Capitol on Jan. 6 are facing a decade or more in prison.”

Prospective No. 2s were also eager to appear on “War Room,” a popular podcast hosted by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, which was recorded live at the conference. Stefanik made an appearance on the show, as did Gabbard, a former Democrat-turned-Independent and MAGA favorite.

Gabbard, who in her speech accused her former party of “trying to destroy” Trump, ignored a shouted question from a reporter about the VP buzz. A giant cardboard cutout of the cover of Gabbard’s new book, “For Love of Country: Why I left the Democratic Party” was situated in the hallway.

“CPAC,” Bannon said in a text, “is the first ‘gating’ event for the VP race.”

Myah Ward contributed to this report.

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