Brushing aside his recent electoral struggles, former President Donald Trump’s loyal band of supporters are hankering to go back to the future in the 2024 election, saying American voters now know how good they had it and what they’ve been missing.
Mr. Trump’s third quest for the presidency is testing whether the adulation of his supporters extends to a broader audience or whether it has siloed them off from the majority of voters, who might not be able to stomach the idea of another Trump presidency.
Activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington said the nation is sure to have a bigger appetite for Mr. Trump now that people have gotten a taste of life under President Biden, 80.
“I think that a lot of people have been enlightened … since Biden has been in office,” said Rae Luzzi, a 66-year-old from New Jersey who recently retired from her job in supply chain management. “I don’t know how people cannot be enlightened, to tell you the truth. How can you look at the president of the United States now and be proud?”
However, it was similar dismay about the Trump presidency that led voters to dump him in the 2020 election.
Voters also rejected Mr. Trump’s preferred picks, some of whom emulated his brash style and message, in key House and Senate races in 2022. The rejection overshadowed the dominance of Trump-backed candidates in GOP strongholds and allowed Democrats to hold onto the Senate majority while flattening a red wave that many had predicted would create a massive House GOP majority, not the slim majority they got.
Nonetheless, most of the activists at CPAC still believe Mr. Trump is destined for a second term in the White House.
He easily crushed a list of other Republican names in the CPAC straw poll that asked attendees who they would vote for in the GOP presidential primary. He earned 62% of the vote and beat the next most popular GOP candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by 42 points.
In a speech on Saturday that capped CPAC, Mr. Trump basked in the glow of what he called the “beautiful” straw poll results and thanked the crowd for the “big win.”
He also assured the enthusiastic crowd that he is not beholden to the “freaks, neocons, globalists, open borders zealots and fools” that ruled the GOP roost before he rose to power.
“Our enemies are lunatics and maniacs,” Mr. Trump said. “They cannot stand that they do not own me, I don’t need them. … They cannot steer me, they cannot shake me, and they never ever will control me, and they will never ever, therefore control you.
“At the end of the day, anyone else will be intimidated, bought off or ripped to shred,” Mr. Trump said. “I alone will never retreat, and that is why we need to stand together. …We have to charge full speed ahead.”
The former president’s enthusiastic and loyal following at CPAC, when asked to justify their support of a candidate who lost in 2020, recited Mr. Trump’s stolen election claims and aired out theories about the orchestrated effort to stop him from winning a second term.
“This [coronavirus] pandemic was formed for a lot of reasons — depopulation and to keep him out the presidency because when he was our president he was working for us, not the swamp creatures, by which I mean the politicians, and I don’t just mean Democrats,” said Charles Hibbs, 68, of South Dakota.
Mr. Hibbs, a semi-retired carpenter who used to coach middle school football, gushed over Mr. Trump’s record of accomplishments, including appointing conservative judges to the Supreme Court who overturned Roe V Wade, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and presiding over a super-charged economy.
Maureen Myers, a retired surgical nurse from Godfrey, Illinois, said Mr. Trump has been treated unfairly, while at the same time, he managed to fulfill many of his campaign promises, unlike other GOP presidents. Those pledges from Mr. Trump’s Make America Great Again Campaign such as increasing border security and promoting U.S. energy independence were what first attracted Ms. Myers to Mr. Trump in 2016.
Even though he lost in 2020, Ms. Myers believes Mr. Trump is best equipped to steer the country back in the right direction and there is only a small window of opportunity left to get it done.
“Trump just keeps fighting and I love that,” Ms. Myers said. “And I am willing to go all the way in the trenches for him.”
Updating his pitch to voters, Mr. Trump has rolled out a list of bold plans for his next administration.
He wants “baby bonuses” for young parents to “launch a new baby boom,” development of vertical take-off and landing vehicles for families and individuals, and a contest for plans to build 10 new “freedom cities” on federal lands.
“We’ll actually build new cities in our country again,” Mr. Trump, 76, said in a video. “These freedom cities will reopen the frontier, reignite American imagination, and give hundreds of thousands of young people and other people, all hardworking families, a new shot at home ownership and in fact, the American dream.”
Mr. Trump’s current and potential rivals have sought to remind voters of the party’s struggles in recent elections, and directed subtle digs, blaming the former president for the GOP’s woes.
“We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the CPAC gathering. “Those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”
Later at CPAC, Mr. Trump said he did not think Mr. Pompeo’s remarks were targeted at him. “I don’t consider myself a celebrity leader, I consider myself a leader of the country,” he told reporters.
In another CPAC speech, Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley put a fine point on it. “If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation,” said Ms. Haley, 51, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and South Carolina governor.
The attempts to dent Mr. Trump, however, did not resonate at CPAC where Ms. Haley was met in the corridors with chants of “We Want Trump! We Want Trump!”
Debbie Lissaur of Randolph, New Jersey, acknowledged the quandary of backing Mr. Trump again for the GOP nomination after he lost the general election in 2020.
“That is a very big question,” she said.
But she’s not going to dwell on her doubts.
“If someone decides they don’t want to vote for Trump because they don’t like them, I respect that.” Ms. Lissaur said. “If they decide they don’t want to vote for Trump because they think he can’t win, in a way, they’re kind of giving into the nonsense on the left.”