FORT WASHINGTON, Md. — The last two Republican presidential nominees forcefully denounced Donald Trump on Thursday, but at one of the largest conservative confabs of the year, the GOP front-runner's name hardly came up.
In fact, explicit references to the presidential race were few and far between at the first day of speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"I'm loving this election! Aren't you," Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn said. That was as emphatic a reference as the presidential election got.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker didn't mention his failed presidential campaign , or anyone else's. “No matter what you think about what’s happening in the presidential election, you can’t give up," Walker said.
He instead chose to speak broadly about the conservative movement in the states.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott never mentioned the candidate he's endorsed, Marco Rubio. Neither did Utah Rep. Mia Love, who has also endorsed the Florida senator. Speaker Paul D. Ryan spoke about poverty .
"Lots of conservatives are scared about what's going on right now," said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who ended his presidential campaign earlier this year and endorsed Rubio.
He lambasted the party for not paying enough attention to lower-skilled workers. “We’re not feeling the love because we’re not giving much," Santorum said. But still, he didn't mention a single presidential candidate.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who has previously said he wouldn't vote for Trump, lectured about prioritizing conservative values over party. Americanism and conservatism, he said, come before Republicanism.
He implored the audience of several hundred to ask if the presidential candidates "believe in equality under the law." Every race should be part of America, he said. It was an implicit rebuke of the GOP front-runner whom he's engaged on Twitter .
But that was it.
CPAC attendees wore their conservatism proudly and colorfully, but few attendees wore campaign buttons for any of the GOP presidential candidates. A cadre of women circulated the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside Washington in red miniskirts emblazoned with elephants, and plenty of young conservatives sported "I love capitalism" stickers. One man in a break-out session on Republicanism and women wore a "Hillary Clinton for Prison" T-shirt. There were just a couple of "Make America Great Again" hats.
A life-size cardboard cut-out of Trump stuck out among the vendor booths as if reminding attendees who didn't hear his name in the official speeches that he's still out there, leading in the delegate count. The absence of Trump's name didn't surprise CPAC regulars. “Conservative grassroots pound for pound is not a Trump phenomenon," said American Majority President Matt Robbins, whose nonprofit trains grassroots conservative leaders. American Majority is running activist boot camps at CPAC — topics include Latino and youth outreach and how to engage with voters face to face. Among hundreds of attendees at Wednesday's boot camp, Robbins said, he encountered just one Trump supporter, and he's happy it was only one. 'They're coming in sort of like a wrecking ball," Robbins said, in reference to the Trump supporters. He especially fears Trump's rhetoric will hurt conservatives' standing with Hispanics. "To say it’s not constructive is an understatement,” he said. "Latinos are emerging in every single demographic, and yet we're excluding them? It's ludicrous."
Trump responded to Romney's criticisms of him as a candidate and businessman Thursday, and he's expected to make his own appearance at CPAC on Saturday. But he wasn't without his defenders at CPAC on Thursday.
"There are a lot of veiled references to 'anybody but Trump,' which is why I'm being belligerent," Tracy Lewis, 53, told Roll Call. Coming all the way from Pawleys Island, S.C., Lewis wore a white shirt with "TRUMP 2016" in red letters on the back. Her Trump jacket was in her American flag bag.
"'A true conservative,' a 'real conservative,' 'conservative principles,'" is what Lewis said she was hearing. "And that's just, 'Please pick Rubio.'"
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