CPAC debuts 2024 presidential contenders, but divisions remain

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ORLANDO, Fla. — A parade of presidential aspirants, led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are trying to prove their conservative bona fides for 2024 to the nation’s top right-wing leaders this weekend.

First out of the gate at CPAC Friday was close Trump ally DeSantis, who kicked off proceedings by urging lockdown-weary out-of-staters to make the Sunshine State their permanent home.

By the time the annual gathering ends Sunday, conservatives will have heard from such White House hopefuls as Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And, of course, former President Donald Trump, who will keynote on Sunday.

On offer was a buffet of red meat.

“Mark my words,” Cruz said in closing out his Friday remarks with a Howard Dean-esque crescendo. “2022 is going to be a fantastic election year and so is 2024, as we stand together and defend liberty, defend the Constitution, defend the Bill of Rights of every American. In the immortal words of William Wallace: Freedom!

Hawley, one of the party’s most strident voices against cancel culture, called for the breakup of big tech “oligarchs,” who he accused of silencing conservatives and selling the US down the river to China.

“What we need is a new nationalism, a new agenda to make the rule of the people real in this country,” said the sweet-toothed pol. “I would start by breaking up the Big Tech corporations. Just break them up. Break them up in the name of the rule of the people, for the good of the American people and our liberty.”

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference has long played a role as a proving ground for Republican presidential candidates. Trump first spoke at the conference in 2011 and has been a regular ever since.

“The theme is America uncanceled. It’s an opportunity to allow people to speak up and speak what they believe,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a former Trump White House communications director. Her husband Matt serves as chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC.

In the modern GOP, however, none can appear too eager for the top job until Former President Trump himself rules it out. He is almost certain to win CPAC’s Sunday straw poll, an early indicator of 2024 grassroots enthusiasm for a candidate.

“Now is the time to get that ground game. We can’t make the mistake of waiting three months, six months before an election,” Rob O’Donnell, a CPAC participant and retired NYPD detective, told The Post. “The ground game needs to start now. It needs to start the day after the last election.”

Though the annual gathering has outwardly projected a show of unity in the wake of Trump’s defeat and losing the Senate, divisions remain.

Former Vice President Pence declined an offer to speak this year after regularly attending during Trump’s presidency. Trump broke with Pence over the latter’s failure to intervene and prevent the certification of the electoral college votes on Jan. 6. A subsequent insurrection, during which the Capitol itself was sacked, left five dead.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the party's most strident voices against cancel culture, called for the breakup of big tech "oligarchs."
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the party’s most strident voices against cancel culture, called for the breakup of big tech “oligarchs.”
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley will also be MIA.

“Nikki was invited to come … I think she had a family issue,” Mercedes Schlapp told The Post, adding that both she and her husband spoke to Pence, who promised to show up next year.

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