Donald Trump Isn't Missed at Conservative Conference

People take part in a straw poll at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, March 4. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump backed out of a scheduled speaking engagement at the conference on Saturday. Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Donald Trump has bowed out of Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, but he will not be missed here at this mecca for movement conservatives. Trump supporters are few and far between at the annual conference, which draws thousands to the Gaylord Conference Center just outside of Washington, D.C. And that likely explains why the Republican front-runner, who was slated to speak here Saturday morning, decided—at the last minute—not to attend. (He's holding a "major rally" in Wichita, Kansas instead.)

Matt Bazel, the national executive director of American Majority, a nonprofit group that helps mobilize conservative voters, says he believes Trump's decision to bow out of CPAC is part of a pivot to the general election race. "I think he thinks he's got it locked up" in the primary, Bazel says.

Nothing Trump's opponents in the GOP primary have done so far seems to be slowing the real estate tycoon. He won a majority of states on Super Tuesday, many by hefty margins, and fended off attacks at the party's latest debate in Detroit on Thursday. He's also leading in polls in Louisiana, Kansas and Kentucky, where Republicans are voting or caucusing on Saturday.

Bazel watched Thursday's debate at the Gaylord Convention Center with other CPAC attendees. He estimates "about one-third of the crowd was pro-Trump, about two-thirds...were anti-Trump. He could have had a chilly reception, people upset or booing and stuff, so why go through that if he doesn't have to?"

From the remarks of those in the crowd and on the stage at CPAC Friday, Bazel's assessment seems pretty accurate. "It doesn't surprise me at all" that Trump's not attending, says 19-year-old Chris Baldwin as she stands in line to enter the main ballroom at the conference. "He's a very narcissistic and self-interested human being."

A self-described libertarian, Baldwin says she is leaning toward supporting the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson. "But if it comes down to where I feel there's a strong chance that Trump will win," she adds, "I will vote for the Democratic candidate." Her biggest issues with Trump: his attitudes toward women and people of different backgrounds. "I don't think he values the individual," she says. "I don't think he values people."

The reaction to Trump's change of plans was equally hostile inside the ballroom. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of Trump's presidential rivals, opened his CPAC remarks Friday afternoon by noting, "So Donald Trump is skipping CPAC." The Potomac Ballroom, where he was speaking, rang with boo's. "I think somebody told him Megyn Kelly was going to be here," Cruz said with a smirk. A small contingent of attendees retorted by chanting "Trump! Trump! Trump!" But they were quickly drowned out by more noisy booing.

Cruz appealed to the CPAC crowd, even those who support other candidates, to unite behind his campaign. "If you don't want Donald to be our nominee then I ask you, come join us," he urged, his hands together in prayer.

Most of the other speakers CPAC's main hall Friday avoided addressing Trump or his surging campaign, though some took thinly veiled swipes at his tone and political shape-shifting. "There's been a lot of flipping and flopping" by Republicans on the issue of visas for highly skilled immigrants, known as H1-B visas, conservative media personality Michelle Malkin observed on Friday.

At the debate on Thursday, Trump said he'd shifted his position on the issue and supported high-skilled immigrants coming to the U.S. to work in Silicon Valley. But an hour after the debate ended the Trump campaign was out with a statement walking back his new position. "The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay," the statement from Trump read. "I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions."

Another CPAC speaker, author Paul Kengor, highlighted the rule within the party against attacking fellow Republicans, known as Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment. "Ronald Reagan would never be in a debate with fellow Republicans and spin to his right and call the guy a liar, spin to his left and call the other guy a choke artist," Kengor observed during a panel on the former president's legacy, quoting Trump's attacks on Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio in a debate last month.

Outside the conference hall, 44-year-old Rob Waldron says he isn't ruling out voting for Trump (though he said he wouldn't vote for Rubio). A supporter of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's erstwhile campaign, he says his No. 1 issue is abolishing the Federal Reserve, which is something he's not sure any of the Republican candidates still in the running would actually support. But the North Carolina bar owner likes what he's heard from Trump on foreign policy, particularly his skepticism of interventions overseas. Trump "slammed Rand in a couple of the first debates…so it would be tough for me to support him, but I probably would," Waldron adds.

Others, however, say they would rather vote for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton than get behind Trump. "Our front-runner is a man who believes in building walls and sealing off the rest of the world and…picking fights with people, from the pope to other world leaders," says 23-year-old William Hanna. "A man like that can never be president and a man like that I can never, ever support," The Cuban-American, who lives in Northern Virginia, laments that Trump supporters have "taken our party hostage," but at this point he says he thinks it is too late to stop Trump's surge. "Even if we have a contested election, Trump's supporters will not fold."

Hanna's friend, 22-year-old Zachary Strom, used to work for Jeb Bush's Super PAC, before the former Florida governor dropped out of the race. Strom says if it came down to a choice between Clinton and Trump, he'd just stay home. "The only walls Donald Trump has been building have been in our party," he says. "We are not a party of hate."