Twelve years ago, conservative activists were begging former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to stay in the Republican presidential race as an alternative to Sen. John McCain.
“I feel I now have to stand aside, for our party and our country,” Mr. Romney said at the 2008 Conservative Political Action Conference before being interrupted by cries of “No!” as attendees realized he was announcing an exit from the presidential race.
“You guys are great,” he said with a laugh. The crowd eventually gave him a standing ovation. Mr. Romney now represents Utah in the Senate.
This year, Mr. Romney was preemptively uninvited, and the mention of his name elicited howls from conservative activists who now want him formally expelled from the party after crossing the president on an impeachment vote.
The about-face on Mr. Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, exemplifies the fickle taste of America’s conservatives. They flirted with libertarian-leaning Ron Paul and Rand Paul over the last decade, ended up in a shotgun marriage with Donald Trump in 2016, and ultimately elevated President Trump to an infallible godlike figure.
Linda Memmesheimer of Naperville, Illinois, called Mr. Trump an “a——-e.” In 2016, her first choice for president was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and she said she held her nose and voted for Mr. Trump in the general election against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“I came kicking and screaming,” said Ms. Memmesheimer, a 66-year-old entrepreneur. “I wasn’t a Trumper at all. He’s an a——-e.”
“Trump is who he says he is, you know? He can be a b———d. You know what? That’s fine. Because we know who he is,” she said. “If there’s one thing that’s true about most of the people here, [it] is we want people who are true to their word because we’ve been lied to for so long. We are so sick of our politicians talking out of one side of their mouth.”
Asked about Mr. Romney, Billie Johnson of Madison, Wisconsin, cautioned that he had to “keep it clean” before calling him an “utterly disgusting individual.”
“He betrayed the voters. He betrayed the party. This is all a big ego trip on his part,” said Mr. Johnson, 66, who is part of a campaign services company.
Mr. Johnson said his first choice in the 2016 presidential contest was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a perennial favorite among the libertarian-leaning CPAC crowd.
He said Mr. Trump was his last choice among the 17 or so major Republican contenders, even behind former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, whose name he initially couldn’t remember.
Now, he calls himself a “100%, full-time supporter” of Mr. Trump. He said he goes to gun shows around Wisconsin with a “Trump table” for people to sign Second Amendment petitions.
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Trump ended up succeeding where so many GOP establishment types failed because he is governing exactly as he campaigned.
“We’re so used to being betrayed,” he said. “Basically, Lincoln said this about U.S. Grant — other people wanted to fire him. ‘No, I can’t spare him — he fights.’ This is what really bothered me about Republicans — we don’t fight back. They wimp out.”
Mr. Trump’s ironclad grip on the conservative movement is most evident at CPAC, where attendees booed Mr. Romney and went out of their way to highlight his absence.
“The Republican Party of Mitt Romney ” Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative students’ group Turning Point USA, started to say in a speech on the conference’s main stage before he was interrupted by boos from the crowd.
“Correct answer, by the way — correct,” Mr. Kirk said. “Every time his name is mentioned, you should respond that way because he lied to every single person in this room that knocked on doors for him.”
Erwin Bruner of West Palm Beach, Florida, was running around the conference periodically unfurling a banner that read: “Romney wasn’t invited cuz CPAC knew I can’t stand RINOS!” #ExpelRomneyFromGOP.”
Mr. Bruner, 45, was airing his grievances to anyone who would listen.
“Signs make people happy. At the same time, they can make people cry, too. RINOs are crying today because of this,” said Mr. Bruner, referring to the derisive “Republican-in-name-only” label conservatives plaster on wayward Republicans.
He said he suspected that Mr. Romney himself was behind damning leaked footage during the 2012 campaign in which the candidate lamented that nearly half the country was dependent on the government and therefore would vote for President Obama no matter what.
“Romney registered [as a] Republican just for one mission — to destroy the Republican Party,” Mr. Bruner said. “If he’s the first senator to impeach a president of his own party, he needs to be the first U.S. senator to be kicked out of the Republican Party in U.S. history.”
Mr. Romney‘s office declined to comment on his less-than-warm reception at CPAC this year.
‘This is Trump PAC’
At the four-day conference, attendees welcomed the idea that conservatives are now bending to Mr. Trump’s will and were prepared to defend him on all fronts.
Wisconsin’s Mr. Johnson said he had bought into Republicans’ traditionally pro-free trade position before taking a closer look at NAFTA and various tariffs on cheese and sugar.
“Wisconsin farmers got screwed,” he said. “I think it’s changed the Republican Party perfectly. Any candidate [who] talks about free trade now is gone.”
Trump administration officials who appeared at CPAC devoted some of their stage time vociferously defending the president’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and chiding the media for overhyping the potential dangers.
Thomas Melvin, a retired school principal from Charleston, South Carolina, said it sounded like the virus might have been cooked up for the express purpose of damaging Mr. Trump politically.
“I think that was put out there to hurt the economy. I don’t really think that came naturally,” Mr. Melvin said. “You know, the powers that be they tried to get him on impeachment, they tried to get the Mueller probe. You [can] see what’s going on.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order,” is seemingly one of the most logical Republican figures to claim the conservative mantle after Mr. Trump leaves office.
Mr. Pence’s appearance at CPAC this year was his 14th, breaking a record that had been held by conservative demigod Ronald Reagan.
“Pence is doing a good job, and he’s got a lot of support here,” Mr. Melvin said.
Mr. Johnson said he initially warmed to Mr. Trump in 2016 when he tapped Mr. Pence, a rock-ribbed social conservative, as his running mate.
“I don’t think Pence has it to be president, but we know he’s a conservative. He’s got a track record,” he said.
Activists also floated a variety of names, including Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest adult children, radio host Ben Shapiro and rapper Kanye West, indicating there’s no clear consensus on who will take the conservative reins in a post-Trump world.
“I don’t know. I hope somebody rises to the occasion because it’s going to be really tough to follow him,” said Carolyn Price, a retired surgery scheduler from Ohio.
Ms. Price called Ivanka Trump “good” and “very smart” despite a slew of negative press she said the president’s daughter has gotten.
Another name that’s been floated for 2024 is former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and there was a booth hawking “Nikki 2024” hats at CPAC.
Ms. Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, helped kick off CPAC last week by asking hundreds of attendees if they were ready for the 2020 election. Several attendees of the ticketed event responded by shouting that they were ready for 2024 instead — when Ms. Haley could mount a White House bid of her own.
She did not directly respond to calls for her presidential campaign but lavished praise on Mr. Trump while roasting his Democratic opponents.
“You know what [Democrats] have forgotten? They’ve forgotten what I learned at the United Nations, which was every socialist country that we ever came in contact with wanted to be in America,” Ms. Haley said. “They wanted what we had: they wanted freedom of religion, they wanted freedom of speech, they wanted freedom.”
Ms. Memmesheimer of Illinois complimented Ms. Haley’s tenure at the U.N.
“Anytime she would speak before the U.N., she was talking like Trump,” she said. “She’s putting it to ‘em. We’re not taking this and not taking that. She’s not going to be a pushover.”
John Bloom, chairman of the Constitution Party of Virginia, was running a small booth in CPAC’s main vendor hub that was tucked at the far end of where attendees entered — right across a booth ran by “The MAGA Mall” decked out with pro-Trump gear.
Mr. Bloom’s booth was flanked with a banner calling Mr. Romney and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan “profile in courage” candidates and a list of anti-Trump Facebook groups he supports, including one called “Reagan Conservatives Against the Trump Cult.”
Mr. Amash left the Republican Party in July and voted to impeach the president in December.
Mid-afternoon Friday, Mr. Bloom was chatting with one man as a significant crowd was queueing up at the nearby Fox Nation booth to snap photos with Diamond and Silk, two black women who became famous online for their unwavering support of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Bloom was well aware of how out of place he was among a sea of Trump fanatics, saying CPAC might as well remove the “conservative” from its acronym at this point.
“This is Trump PAC. Look around. I’m right across the street from ‘MAGA Mall,’” he said.
• Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report.
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