The Republican primary contest next year is destined to be bloody, but conservative leaders say they don’t mind a bruising fight for the party’s presidential nomination.
Former President Donald Trump and other Republicans will begin competing in person this week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off Wednesday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in suburban Maryland, outside Washington.
Mr. Trump, the dominant candidate so far, is expected to use the CPAC stage to snipe at his 2024 opponents as he has done on his Truth Social media site in recent weeks. His top target, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has not committed to attending the event. Mr. DeSantis is widely expected to launch a presidential campaign after the Florida legislative session ends in May.
Mr. Trump has already assigned unflattering nicknames and criticized his rival. He cast Mr. DeSantis’ policy accomplishments in Florida as poor imitations of Mr. Trump’s successes in the White House.
CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp told The Washington Times that a big brawl in the primary is fine if it leads to a nominee who is prepared to battle for victory in the general election.
“I’m good with it,” Mr. Schlapp said. “Not in the sense that I think all of it is good, or ennobling. But I think it’s just the way the process is, and we need to have somebody survive this process who’s ready for perhaps the biggest political fight we’ve ever had in this country’s history.”
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Mr. Trump is a beloved figure at CPAC.
Mr. Schlapp said the conference is neutral in the emerging primary battle but Mr. Trump is an important figure to him and his wife, Mercedes. Mrs. Schlapp served as a top communications aide in the Trump administration.
“CPAC has a special affection for President Trump, and most Americans are realizing how much they miss his commonsense policies,” Mr. Schlapp said. “For Mercy and me, it’s personal as President Trump has been a boss, a friend and a big CPAC booster, and we are very proud of what he has accomplished and pleased he is running again.”
The CPAC confab conducts a closely watched straw poll. Mr. Trump has won it every year since 2017, more than any other Republican in CPAC history.
The poll this week will pit him against a field of declared and possible 2024 hopefuls, including Mr. DeSantis.
Last year, Mr. Trump beat Mr. DeSantis among CPAC voters, 59% to 28%. Without Mr. Trump in the field, 61% of CPAC voters picked Mr. DeSantis, leaving all other possible Republican candidates in the dust with low single-digit support.
This year’s CPAC, themed “Protecting America Now,” will feature speeches and glad-handing by prospective candidates. Some are officially in the race, including Mr. Trump and his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others are still poking around at the edge of the primary field.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has not shown up at CPAC in several years, declined an invite to this year’s event as he contemplates a presidential run.
Biotechnology tycoon Vivek Ramaswamy announced his candidacy this month and will be attending CPAC.
Mr. DeSantis is launching a tour this week to promote his new memoir and is not expected to make an appearance at CPAC. His political team said the governor had not announced his plans for the week so there is a chance that he will show up.
Mr. DeSantis has registered in polls as the most formidable opponent of the former president. He beats Mr. Trump in some surveys and polls far above any other non-Trump candidate, including Mrs. Haley and Mr. Pence.
Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Schlapp said, “is someone I have great admiration for” and is a good friend.
“He was a great member of Congress,” Mr. Schlapp said. “He had a near-perfect rating with CPAC. He’s been a fantastic governor. We’ve been rooting him on, and we’d love to have him at CPAC. And yeah, I think you’d be missing an opportunity not to come.”
Mr. Schlapp said most of the candidates are aligned on the issues, although the Republican Party is increasingly split on foreign policy, including U.S. support for the war in Ukraine.
The primary fight, he said, is about picking a nominee who can beat the Democratic candidate — presumably President Biden.
The candidate who wins a nasty Republican primary fight will be better prepared for an even dirtier battle against Democrats in the general election, Mr. Schlapp said.
“The question is, who’s the person to fight the other side because I know personally the other side fights pretty mean,” Mr. Schlapp said. “Are we ready for that? Is everybody ready for that?”