A potential Trump VP picks the herd at CPAC, auditioning for the seat next to him

Influential Republicans running for Vice President Donald J. Trump showed up at a conservative conference near Washington, auditioning for a spot on Mr. Trump’s campaign trail with fire and adulation.

Four people seen as candidates in an “Apprentice”-like spectacle appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, on Friday. They included Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kari Lake, the Arizona Senate candidate who rose to conservative prominence with a mouthful of Mr. Trump’s stolen election lies. Conservative and former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was scheduled to speak later in the evening.

The candidates seemed to realize they had an audience of one in Mr. Trump. Their approaches differed, but their speeches were similar in tone and substance: underscoring their loyalty through effusive praise and fiery rhetoric to the base, while portraying the former president, who faces 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases, as a martyr for the republicans.

Ms. Stefanik, a former moderate Republican whose rediscovery of a close Trump ally helped propel her to a position in the House leadership, has made a point of aggressively defending Mr. Trump over his legal troubles. She played down the Republican-led congressional investigation into President Biden and his son Hunter, repeatedly calling them the “Biden crime family” even though much of the testimony in the Biden cases has been called into question.

“The closer President Trump gets to victory, the dirtier the Democrats, their media stenographers and corrupt prosecutors will get. They will stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, in their attempt to steal this next election,” Ms. Štefanik said.

She has also sought to present herself as an early supporter of Mr. Trump despite her earlier private criticism of him as a disaster for the Republican Party. Mr. Trump and his campaign have signaled that loyalty and respect for the former president are key qualities.

Ahead of the South Carolina primary, and ahead of other key presidential contests on March 5, Super Tuesday, Mr. Trump and his campaign have called for speculation about his potential nominee as a way to project the inevitability of his candidacy and direct attention away from Nikki Haley, his rebel rivals in the presidential race.

In interviews, CPAC attendees offered mixed opinions on who Mr. Trump should pick, with some singling out unapologetic Trump aides such as Mr. Ramaswamy and Ms. Stefanik. But many also qualified their choices by saying they would be happy with whichever candidate Mr. Trump chose.

“I don’t have a big opinion,” said Mitch Boggs, a state representative from Missouri, adding that Ms. Stefanik would be his personal choice. But he said: “I want Trump to choose whoever he wants.”

Mr. Vance, sitting in an interview with the anchor of the conservative news channel Newsmax, on the main stage of the convention, said that “Donald Trump is perhaps the first politician in my lifetime who will be much poorer for having served his country. This is the best proof that we should re-elect him in 2024, he sacrificed himself for his country.” (Before the enormous fines from the civil suits against him, Mr. Trump profited from his private businesses both during his presidency and after he left office.)

The Ohio senator also focused during the interview on his opposition to US military aid to Ukraine, an isolationist policy he shares with Mr Trump. He had harsh words for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, accusing him of caring more about the war in Ukraine than about domestic problems in his own state.

“You have to look yourself in the mirror and accept that your business has failed,” Mr. Vance said. “You were unsuccessful in your work.”

Ms. Noem highlighted her early support for Mr. Trump in the 2024 contest and said she declined to run for president because she knew no one could beat Mr. Trump in the primary, prompting applause when she said: “He’s the only person who has the support to be the Republican nominee.” She also delivered a dark message that mimicked Mr Trump’s divisive rhetoric.

“There are two types of people in this country right now. There are people who love America and there are people who hate America,” she said.

Ms. Lake did not appear on the main stage, but participated in a panel moderated by the far-right television channel Real America’s Voice on the convention floor. She also echoed Trump’s isolationist views on aid to Ukraine, saying the United States must stop sending money abroad.

Berney Flowers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel running for Congress in Maryland, named Mr. Ramaswamy, Ms. Lake, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Tulsi Gabbard, a former congresswoman from Hawaii who left the Democratic Party to become a political independent, as possible candidates he would support.

“We need fire,” he said, though he added, “any of those people I’d be happy to be behind.”

The conference will end on Saturday with the traditional poll of the group. For the first time in at least a decade, the poll will include a question about vice presidential preferences, asking participants to choose the best vice president for Mr. Trump.

It’s a very different selection process from that of 2016, when Mr. Trump picked Mike Pence as his running mate just days before the Republican National Convention. At the time, Mr. Trump was still largely an outsider in the Republican Party and had to work to fend off attempts to derail his nomination and fuel a contentious convention. Against his instincts, which would favor the respected candidate who would aggressively defend him against his many criticsMr. Trump settled on Mr. Pence in an effort to unify the party.

Now, Mr. Trump might as well be a Republican, and he’s likely to favor the candidates he respects the most, even as he weighs factors like whether a woman or a person of color might help win over voters in the general election.

Michael C. Bender contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Comment