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Trump set to headline diminished gathering of conservatives

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference was once one of the premier gatherings on the GOP campaign calendar — a must-stop for serious contenders testing the waters on presidential runs.

No longer.

Many of the party's best-known likely candidates — from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to former Vice President Mike Pence — are skipping the marquee event kicking off Wednesday as the group grapples with controversy and questions over its place in a movement that remains deeply split over its allegiance to former President Donald Trump.

Adding to the turmoil: A lawsuit filed by an unnamed Republican campaign staffer against Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference. The suit accuses Schlapp of groping the staffer during a car ride in Georgia before the November election.

Schlapp, who has denied the staffer's account, did not address the allegations against him as CPAC programming began Thursday, but did make a nod to the notable absences.

“There’s a lot of chatter in the media about who's here and not here,” he said.

Among those bypassing this year's event are congressional leaders and governors, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, and several potential presidential prospects, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has been building buzz among some donors.

“He’s laser-focused on Virginia and having a good legislative session and now focused on passing the budget,” said Jeff Roe, a Youngkin political consultant.

Pence is a longtime CPAC speaker who has not appeared at the conference since he drew the ire of some Trump supporters by resisting Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In explaining why Pence declined to attend this year, his aides cited a full schedule of events, including a Club for Growth donor summit; a trip to South Carolina, where he will speak at the evangelical Bob Jones University; a speech at the conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan; and a Students for Life of America event in Florida.

“We had other priorities this week, but I wish them well," Pence told The Associated Press from South Carolina on Thursday. "That’s an important gathering filled with great Americans, and I look forward to returning someday.”

The glaring absence of many prominent Republicans this year marks a dramatic change from 2015, the year before the last competitive GOP presidential primary, when CPAC's schedule included nearly all of the major candidates, Jeb Bush among them. The former Florida governor, who is now criticized by many on the right, received a warm reception, even as a small number of activists staged a walkout.

Alex Conant, a longtime GOP strategist, remembers attending his first CPAC as a high school student in the 1990s and being star-struck meeting Newt Gingrich, the Georgia congressman who had just stepped down as House speaker.

“I don’t think people go there to meet the next generation of leaders. They go to celebrate the last one,” Conant said.

Conant returned often as an aide, including when he was working for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a 2016 presidential candidate who was one of a long list of Republicans with a breakthrough moment on CPAC’s stage over the years.

This time, however, Rubio is absent.

“I think CPAC used to be a place where stars could break out. Now it’s much more the Trump show,” Conant said.

This year, Trump has top billing, delivering the conference’s headlining speech Saturday evening. He is almost guaranteed to win the event's annual unscientific presidential preference poll of attendees.

Trump, hyping his speech as a “monster” and urging attendees to vote for him in the poll, said on his social media site: “The only reason certain ‘candidates’ won’t be going to CPAC is because the crowds have no interest in anything they have to say.”

Also on the schedule are the two other declared Republican candidates: Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech investor Vivek Ramaswamy.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is also mulling a White House run, is set to speak. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida will appear. Both have recently signaled their intentions to run for reelection instead of vying for the nomination.

The conference schedule features a litany of election deniers who reject findings from judges, election officials and Trump's own attorney general that there was no widespread fraud during the 2020 campaign. They include Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder who continues to spread election conspiracy theories, and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently called for a “national divorce” between blue and red states. Kari Lake, the news anchor-turned Arizona gubernatorial candidate who refused to concede after losing last year, will speak Friday night.

Both Greene and Lake are considered potential Trump vice presidential picks.

Activists will also hear from Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, whose supporters stormed the country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace after he refused to accept his defeat in October. The siege bore striking similarities to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.

Schlapp said in a statement that CPAC was “gratified that all the announced candidates are coming” as the conference returns to National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just outside of Washington, for the first time since 2020.

“When it comes to Presidential politics, talk is cheap. When you formally announce your name, you’re real,” he said. “We have never had such a strong lineup of speakers,. ... CPAC will continue to highlight conservatives and not be a mouthpiece for establishment conservative republicanism.”

The Club for Growth, the influential anti-tax group that has clashed with Trump, will hold a competing event, a donor summit in Florida, that is attracting DeSantis, Pence and others. Trump was not invited, underscoring the fierce divide in the conservative movement as some elements strongly back him and others look to move in a new direction.

Since Trump became president, the conference has really been all about him. In 2021, a procession of speakers declared their fealty to the former president as some attendees posed for selfies with a golden statue of his likeness.

That gives little incentive for other candidates to attend.

“If you’re Ron DeSantis, what’s the strategic reason for you to go to a place that’s pretty well on the record as just being a Trump fan club?” said Ross Hemminger, a former press secretary for the event and former deputy communications director for the ACU.

The group has also increasingly welcomed fringe elements of the party, and that's made some former staff and participants uneasy. And as CPAC has expanded overseas, it's begun hosting autocratic leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Hemminger said the conferences used be a must-stop for Republican presidential candidates, with so many senators on the program that some had to be relegated to secondary stages. Now, he said, the lineup seems to feature “a bunch of like third-string radio talk show hosts."

“You just look at it and you think, ‘Oh wow.’ CPAC used to be such a big deal and now it’s this,” he said. “The goal used to be setting the conservative agenda. The goal now is: It doesn’t matter how nutty you have to be, you just have to get Donald Trump’s attention and make him know that you are willing to make a fool of yourself for him so that you can stay in his good graces.”

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Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in North Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.