Trump cancels, Cruz takes advantage

Campaign 2016 | The senator from Texas gets rock-star treatment from conservatives at CPAC
by Evan Wilt
Posted 3/04/16, 07:58 pm

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—Real estate mogul Donald Trump abruptly backed out of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, giving Sen. Ted Cruz an opportunity to grab the spotlight.

Trump campaign announced he would spend his weekend campaigning in Kansas, which hold its caucuses Saturday, and Florida.

The billionaire businessman’s decision to skip his scheduled speech Saturday will make him the only remaining Republican presidential candidate to not speak at the four-day event. Even retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who dropped out of the race earlier this week, made an appearance Friday.

Thousands of CPAC attendees roared with applause when Cruz took the stage Friday afternoon, his rhetoric easily bringing the overflow crowd to its feet.

The senator from Texas did not pull any punches in his remarks about the current GOP front-runner. Cruz jabbed at Trump’s deal-maker persona: “I will not compromise away your religious liberty. I will not compromise on your Second Amendment rights!”

Earlier Friday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich received a warm welcome in the filled auditorium. The underdog candidate dressed casually, wearing a dark sports jacket, a patterned button-up shirt, and no tie. He told personal stories and frequent jokes, which generated spurts of applause.

But Kasich’s conversationalist 15-minute speech was in stark contrast to Cruz’s energy a few hours later.

Sean Hannity of Fox News sat down with Kasich on stage to ask him about his perceived path to the Republican nomination. Kasich said he thinks none of the four remaining GOP candidates will get the 1,237 delegates needed and expects a brokered convention this summer.

“Can you think of anything cooler than a [brokered] convention?” he said. “We’re the little engine that can.”

In anticipation of a rambunctious crowd, CPAC officials beefed up security this year, adding multiple metal detectors and bag-screening checkpoints. Hundreds of attendees arrived early Friday, only to wait in long lines while security officers processed each person.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Pribeus spoke to CPAC attendees before Trump’s announced exit: “Whether you are for Kasich, Cruz, Rubio, or Trump, they need to have a party that has it’s act together.” He vowed to pledge full support to the eventual party nominee.

As Pribeus fielded questions from Hannity, conference attendees milled around outside CPAC’s main auditorium.

Taylor Priest, a student from Kent State University in Ohio, came to CPAC with his mind made up but would not disclose his decision. He said he was looking forward to hearing from all the candidates, particularly his governor, Kasich. Priest told me he was also interested to hear what Carson had to say after suspending his campaign. 

“I supported him, but I could not vote for him,” Priest said of Carson. “He is a good man, but my concern with him has always been foreign policy—that absolutely hurt him.”

Carson even joked during his CPAC speech, which came after Cruz’s late Friday afternoon, “A lot of people love me, but they just won’t vote for me.” He went on to say he would work to encourage Christian involvement in the political process as chairman of the non-profit My Faith Votes.

“I will still continue to be heavily involved in trying to save our nation,” he said. “We have to save it.”

Carol Frazier drove three hours from Worcester County, Md., to show her support for Cruz. But she too was looking forward to hearing from Carson: “My husband actually has a Carson bumper sticker on his car and has donated a considerable amount of money to the Carson campaign.”

Frazier explained she has enormous respect for Carson, and is not a fan of Trump, but supports Cruz “because of his stance on the Constitution and for limiting government.”

Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper, who also was in attendance, told me he believes Cruz is the best choice for Christians. Piper’s school is among several institutions challenging whether Obamacare’s mandate for employers to provide coverage for contraceptives and abortifacient drugs extends to private Christian universities and charities.

Piper said Carson brought integrity and a strong message of Christian virtue to the 2016 election, but he thinks evangelicals should flee from Trump and rally behind Cruz.

“The question of our day for Christians: Why in the world would the evangelical vote be supporting a man who was on the cover of Playboy and is proud of it?” Piper asked. “The church is a mess, and that’s why Ben Carson didn’t catch on, and that’s why people are leaning toward Trump rather than Cruz.”

Several CPAC attendees told me they came to hear from Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is scheduled to speak Saturday, and knew little about Kasich, not believing he had a real chance of winning the GOP nomination.

Spencer Schultz, a Cleveland State University student, said, even as an Ohio voter, he doesn’t hear much about his governor, as Trump gets all the media attention. Schultz noted the discrepancy has made it difficult to form opinions on the candidates.

Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich still trail Trump in most polls, but CPAC attendees didn’t seem to miss the reality television star.

The packed audience chanted “Ted! Ted! Ted!” as the senator walked on stage.

“So Donald Trump is skipping CPAC,” Cruz chastised. “I think he heard [Fox News’] Megyn Kelly was going to be here! Even worse, I think he heard conservatives were going to be here!”

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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