CPAC: Republican hopefuls audition to be Trump’s VP pick

Donald Trump

By Anthony Zurcher

North America correspondent

With the Republican primary nomination drained of much of its drama, political conversation on the right is shifting to who the clear frontrunner, Donald Trump, might pick as his vice-presidential running mate.

The former president himself has encouraged such speculation. He’s sent out fundraising emails teasing his choice. At a town hall forum on Fox News, Mr Trump responded to a list of six names – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Florida congressman Byron Donalds, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard – as all on his short list.

“Honestly all of those people are good,” he said.

Four of those mentioned are speaking at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in the Washington suburbs. The annual gathering of right-wing activists, lobbyists and businesses – dominated in recent years by the Trump faithful – has become a de facto auditioning session for the number-two nod, as well as for other former and aspiring Trump administration officials.

The former president himself will address the convention on Saturday afternoon. A few hours later, CPAC will announce the results of a straw poll asking attendees to pick among a list of 17 possible Trump running-mate picks.


Mr Scott, considered to be one of the leading contenders, has been campaigning for Mr Trump in his home state of South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary on Saturday, and didn’t make the trip to the convention.

Here’s a look at how some of the other vice-presidential aspirants are making their pitch at CPAC, and how they’re being received by the right-wing faithful.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) urges supporters to cheer for Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump
Image caption,Senator Tim Scott

Tulsi Gabbard

Former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been on an eight-year political journey that took her from the Bernie Sanders left to Donald Trump’s doorstep.

After backing the democratic socialist Vermont senator against Hillary Clinton in 2016, she ran for president in 2020, championing liberal issues like government-run healthcare, free college tuition and gun control.

Now she’s singing Mr Trump’s praises.

“This is a man who is a fighter,” she said at her CPAC speech on Thursday evening. “His strength and resilience can only come from one place… his sincere love and concern for the future of our country.”

She also sounded a bit like her old Democratic self, warning of a growing threat to American democracy – but the danger, she argued, came from the left’s prosecution of Mr Trump. caption,

Watch: And who should be Trump’s running mate?

Ms Gabbard is being talked up by Trump confidant Roger Stone and others on the right, who view her National Guard deployment to Iraq and her American Samoan ancestry, as well as her charismatic stage presence, all as ways to expand the former president’s appeal in a general election.

Ms Gabbard’s criticisms of an interventionist US foreign policy also fits well with Mr Trump’s “America first” outlook.

The challenge for Ms Gabbard is her long record of support for liberal issues – and concerns that, as Mr Trump’s VP pick, she could be an unreliable heir to his political movement.

That didn’t matter much to Cpac attendee Joshua Mixon, a university student in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

“She’s not necessarily a full-on Republican, but she’s just very smart,” he said. “She’s very strong in her beliefs.”

She appears intent on dispelling any doubts about her conservative bona fides, however, and will be headlining a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser in March.

From left - Tulsi Gabbard, Elise Stefanik, Kristi Noem
Image caption,From left – Tulsi Gabbard, Elise Stefanik, Kristi Noem

Byron Donalds

The little-known Florida congressman burst on to the political stage in January 2023. He was the candidate for Speaker of the House of Representatives who conservatives briefly backed to show their disapproval of the eventual winner, Kevin McCarthy of California.

Since then, Mr Donalds has built on that moment in the spotlight by stepping up his criticism of President Joe Biden, and defending Mr Trump on conservative cable television.

On Thursday morning, the 45-year-old took his turn before the CPAC crowd, delivering a speech that was mostly right-wing boilerplate.

“He is a solid conservative with common sense,” said Dixie Ferguson, who travelled to CPAC from Walla Walla, Washington. “For a younger man, I think he has tremendous leadership qualities.”

If Mr Trump is looking for diversity in his VP pick – but doesn’t feel comfortable with Mr Scott – Mr Donalds, who is black, might be another option.

A stumbling block is a constitutional provision prohibiting a presidential ticket with two candidates from the same state, however.

Either Mr Trump or Mr Donalds would have to find a new legal home, at least temporarily.

Rep. Byron Donalds
Image caption,Byron Donalds is an outspoken critic of President Biden

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Kristi Noem

It’s hard to develop a national profile as governor of a state with “Dakota” in its name. South Dakota’s Kristi Noem managed a breakthrough, of sorts, back in 2020, when she pushed back against recommended Covid restrictions in her sparsely populated state.

The coronavirus pandemic may no longer be a salient political issue, but the connection she made with Mr Trump – hosting him for a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore in her state in 2020 – has kept her in the vice-presidential conversation.

At CPAC, Ms Noem highlighted her Covid record, boasting that she was the only governor “who never once closed a single business”.

“We trusted each other,” she said, “and we got through our challenges together.”

She also noted that she was one of the first public officials to endorse Mr Trump’s 2024 campaign, taking a swipe at some of those who ran against him – and who could be her vice-presidential rivals.

“Why did all these other candidates get into the race?” she asked. “For themselves? For personal benefit? To get into the spotlight for a limited time?”

Ms Noem wants to make sure that Mr Trump’s supporters at CPAC – and, by extension, the man himself – know she’s been with him from the start.

Elise Stefanik

Since being elected to Congress in 2014, Elise Stefanik of New York has moved steadily up the ranks of the House of Representatives. She’s also moved steadily closer to Mr Trump’s orbit.

Her star turn came last year, when her aggressive questioning of three college presidents during a hearing about antisemitism on college campuses generated national headlines. Two of those presidents resigned after intense criticism of their response to her queries.

“I have a backbone of steel,” Ms Stefanik said in her CPAC speech. “Just ask the presidents of Harvard and Penn… the former presidents of Harvard and Penn.”

This new prominence, along with a full-throated support of Mr Trump during his two presidential impeachments, has pushed her to the top of vice-presidential speculation.

A slick video played before she took the stage at CPAC heavily featuring clips of Mr Trump praising her efforts. The unstated message: the former president talks about her regularly – and likes what he sees.

During her speech, she noted she was the first member of Congress to endorse Mr Trump’s 2024 re-election bid and boasted that her upstate New York congressional district, which she flipped from Democratic control, is now “Trump and Elise country”.

It almost sounded like she was pitching a 2024 campaign slogan.

JD Vance

JD Vance was a Trump critic back in 2016, calling him a “total fraud”. Like several top vice-presidential contenders, Mr Vance has warmed to the former president, however.

The transition occurred right around the time that the author of Hillbilly Elegy, the bestselling memoir about the struggles of American rural life, turned to politics in 2022, winning a US Senate seat in Ohio as a Republican.

At CPAC on Friday, Mr Vance sat down for an interview with Newsmax host Rob Schmitt, rather than delivering a formal speech.

Much of the conversation focused on Ukraine – a topic where Mr Vance and Mr Trump’s views about quickly reaching a negotiated settlement overlap.

“We don’t like that Russia invaded Ukraine, but the question is, what can we do about it?” he said. “A lot of people have convinced themselves that diplomacy is a bad word… We want the killing to stop.”

Mr Vance is the only white man regularly listed on Mr Trump’s vice-presidential shortlist, which is notable given the Republican Party – and Mr Trump’s – insistence that personnel decisions should be colour-blind.

It is a reflection of the consensus view that the former president needs to find a way to broaden his appeal beyond his political base, and the vice-presidential selection is one way to do it.

If Mr Trump seeks to improve his standing in the Midwest, perhaps the most important electoral battleground in November, then choosing a running mate from Ohio – one intimately familiar with the plight of working-class white voters – could help.

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