Donald Trump's presidency is over and his Twitter feed silenced, but at the first major conservative gathering of the year, the message is clear: Mr. Trump is here to stay.
Elected officials and activists who spoke on the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Florida this year, focused on COVID-19 restrictions, the so-called cancel culture, how the 2020 election was administered and the threats they see from Democratic policies. While there was barely any mention of the attack at the Capitol last month, speakers railed against the "liberal mob" and riots over the summer.
The conference doesn't feature open critics of the former president, so praise for Mr. Trump, who still has the support of most GOP voters, was a theme of the opening day.
"There are a whole lot of voices in Washington that want to just erase the last four years," Texas Senator Ted Cruz told the crowd. "Let me tell you right now: Donald J. Trump ain't going anywhere."
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton told a story about an immigrant attributing his economic success to the former president, and celebrated Mr. Trump ability to attract Latino voters in the 2020 election.
And Missouri Senator Josh Hawley received a standing ovation when he told the crowd of his objection to the election results on January 6. He blasted Twitter for banning Trump, and ended his speech with: "America now, America first, America forever."
Many speakers urged the Republican Party against a return to its pre-Trump origins and criticized some of the policies past GOP leaders have pushed.
"We will not win the future by trying to go back to where the Republican Party used to be," said Florida Senator Rick Scott, who also chairs the Senate Republicans' campaign operation. "If we do, we will lose the working base that President Trump so animated. We're going to lose elections across the country and ultimately we're going to lose our nation."
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is up for reelection in 2022, set his own mark for conservatives going forward, saying the party rejects open borders, "weakness" against China and "military adventurism."
"We will not go back to the days of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear," he said. "Hold the line, stand your ground, and don't ever, ever back down."
Hawley told the people attending CPAC that they "represent what's coming next."
"To the people who say to us, 'Oh, you're the past. Your moment has passed, it's over. It's Joe Biden's America now,'" he said. "I just want to say, 'we're not the past. We're the future,'" he said.
At the event, Hawley wore the widespread criticism of his objection to the counting of Electoral College votes on January 6 as a badge of honor.
"I was called a traitor, I was called a seditionist," he said of the reaction to his vote. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm standing right here. I'm going to stand up for you, because if we can't have free and open debate in this country, we're not going to have a country left." His phrasing echoed a remark made by Mr. Trump to his supporters that day: "If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
Nearly a dozen speakers at the event have been mentioned as possible 2024 presidential candidates. "For a second there, I thought we were in Des Moines," Cruz quipped about the speaking lineup.
Cotton, among the likely White House hopefuls, suggested Republicans might not be running against Biden in four years. "They want to give amnesty to 15 to 20 million illegal aliens. With no strings attached, with voting rights —presumably in time for what they hope will be Kamala Harris' reelection campaign," he said.
But as a roster of Republicans compete to boost their profiles, it is Mr. Trump who is the marquee speaker, set to make his first public remarks since leaving office at the conference on Sunday.
Mr. Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., joked that the conference should be called "TPAC" because of the support the former president has among the audience. He offered a brief preview of his father's speech, telling the crowd, "I imagine it will not be what we call a 'low-energy' speech. And I assure you that it will solidify Donald Trump and all of your feelings about the MAGA Movement as the future of the Republican Party."
Polling shows Mr. Trump still holds a firm grip on the Republican Party's base. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll published earlier this week found nearly 6 in 10 Trump supporters said they'd like to see him run for president again in 2024 and 76% said they'd vote for him if he sought the Republican nomination.
Saturday's notable speakers include Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who have been floated as potential 2024 presidential candidates.