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OXON Hill, Md. — The sea of red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps was the most visible sign that the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists would be a little different with Donald Trump as president.

“And you finally have a president now. Finally,” President Trump crowed in his triumphant return to the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Took you a long time.”

The major conference offered a glimpse of what the conservative movement might look like, reshaped in Trump’s image.

Trump, Vice President Pence, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, top strategist Stephen Bannon and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway all spoke at CPAC, a full court press from the administration.

There were subtler signs that Trumpism was muscling its way into conservative policy discussions. There was a panel discussion exploring whether free trade was in fact “phony trade,” featuring RT News anchor Ed Schultz.

“You can’t find one [free trade deal] that’s benefited anyone sitting around the kitchen table of the American worker,” Schultz declared. “Our jobs have been outsourced and shipped overseas, we’ve seen wage depression and layoffs because it’s just not a level playing field.”

“Every great movement — which the conservative movement is, of course — every great movement ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time and I think they need new infusion of energy,” Conway told conference attendees.

Trump, Conway argued, provided that new energy. She quipped the president could turn CPAC into “TPAC.”

Conway wasn’t far off. Support for Trump was evident throughout the event. Despite a lot of familiar faces and organizations from past CPACs, there were few reminders of Trump’s turbulent relationship with the conservative movement — and the conference itself.

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Trump pulled out of CPAC at the last minute in 2016, a move a former American Conservative Union chairman decried as a “slap in the face.” The organization protested on Twitter that Trump’s “choice sends a clear message to conservatives.”

While the president fondly recalled CPAC as the scene of some of his first major political speeches, in years past he has not always the packed the ballroom. In the final CPAC straw poll before Trump won the Republican presidential nomination had him in a distant third place with 15 percent of the vote, to 40 percent for Ted Cruz and 30 percent for Marco Rubio.

Cruz was there again this year and was well received. “We have the opportunity for this to be an historic Congress, the most productive Congress in decades,” the Texas senator said. “This year, in 2017, we should repeal Obamacare, confirm a strong conservative for the Supreme Court and pass fundamental tax reform – ideally a flat tax.”

But Rubio was a no-show. So was Rand Paul. Pre-Trump CPAC was heavily attended by social conservatives and libertarians, not nationalists and populists.

Trump has won over the CPAC crowd by so far delivering a mostly conventionally conservative agenda. The president’s approval rating in the event’s straw poll stood at 86 percent, with 55 percent “strongly” approving. Ninety-four percent supported Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

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Attendees were tired of being shut out of the White House after eight years of Barack Obama and were hopeful that a unified Republican government could deliver on an Obamacare repeal, tax reform and conservative judges.

The straw poll results indicated that the border wall and some other distinctly Trumpian proposals were not major priorities for the gathered conservative activists. There was no real consensus on trade policy. Long-established conservative policies remained popular.

Trump’s attacks on the news media also went over well with a conservative audience that has for decades wanted Republicans to hit back against perceived liberal bias.

“He’s taking his message directly to the American people,” said Republican strategist Ed Pozzouli. “The mainstream media never gave him any chance to win and he proved them wrong.”

Yet Trump’s CPAC speech also made clear that not everything was the same. The audience cheered as Trump spoke favorably about a socialist’s position on trade deals.

“Actually I like [Vermont Sen.] Bernie [Sanders],” Trump said, “He was right about trade. Our country is being absolutely devastated by bad deals.”

Trump said of the Middle East, “If our presidents would have gone to the beach for 15 years, we would be in much better shape than we are right now, that I can tell you.” That line was as much of a criticism of George W. Bush as Barack Obama.

Not long ago, Bush was a hero at CPAC. But former speechwriter Matt Latimer claimed the 43rd president had a special request about his own CPAC speech.

“Let me tell you something,” Bush said. “I whupped Gary Bauer’s ass in 2000. So take out all this movement stuff. There is no movement.”

Bush, according to Latimer, then added, “Look, I know this probably sounds arrogant to say, but I redefined the Republican Party.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear Trump saying something similar, and beating Cruz is more impressive than defeating Bauer.

Instead Trump treated his first presidential CPAC as more of a homecoming.

“I had very little notes and even less preparation,” Trump said, recalling his first CPAC appearance in 2011. “So when you have practically no notes and no preparation and then you leave and everybody was thrilled, I said, ‘I think I like this business.'”



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