ORLANDO, Florida — Former President Donald Trump told CPAC in Orlando on Sunday that he might run again for president in 2024 and that he would remain a Republican instead of starting a third political party.
After falsely claiming he had won reelection last year, he said, “Who knows? I might even decide to beat them [the Democrats] for a third time,” a statement that brought loud cheers from the conventioneers.
Earlier in his speech, the ex-president said he was sticking with the GOP to fight what he claimed was Democratic socialism, “which we know leads to communism.”
“We’re not starting new parties,” he said. “I am not starting a new party.”
Trump spent much of the speech criticizing the Biden administration for its policies on immigration, energy and other issues, which he called “a destructive agenda.”
In a straw poll of CPAC attendees revealed just before Trump’s address, 68 percent said they wanted Trump to run again in 2024, a smaller number than expected considering his 97 percent job approval among participants. The other 32 percent either said he shouldn’t run or had no opinion.
In a separate poll of potential 2024 GOP nominees for president, Trump was the choice of 55 percent of attendees. Gov. Ron DeSantis came in second at 21 percent, with all other candidates in single digits.
With Trump out of the mix, however, DeSantis was first with 43 percent. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem came in second with 11 percent; Donald Trump Jr. got 8 percent for third.
The results highlighted the Florida governor’s difficult path of laying the groundwork for a potential campaign while at the same time still being seen as a loyal Trump acolyte.
U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio both got 1 percent or less in both polls.
Hours earlier, thousands of people both inside and outside the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference eagerly waited for the remarks from Trump, who was closing out an event indelibly marked by his election falsehoods and grievances.
Crowds grew throughout the day starting with dozens in the morning, to thousands by 1:30 p.m., about three hours before Trump was due to speak. Most were not registered with the conference, so they wouldn’t be able to witness the speech.
Amid blaring car horns along International Drive and speakers on adjacent sidewalks blaring Trump anthems such as “YMCA,” Jeanette Mospaw of Winter Haven found a shady spot in the heat to wave her “Keep America Great” flag.
“There’s nothing better than all the Trump people together,” said Mospaw, who traveled with a friend to Orlando for the day.
She said she’d been to two Trump rallies, and was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, coming within feet of the U.S. Capitol as insurrectionists breached the building.
She said she hoped Trump would declare his candidacy for president in 2024.
“I want to hear from him how he’s going to come back,” Mospaw said. “I think he’s going to back Biden down. He has to. It’s in his DNA. Of course, we all feel the same way, and he’s going to try to lift us up at the same time.”
Some signs along International Drive harkened to the QAnon conspiracy theory, with one saying “Fear less, LQve more,” and another said “GQP.” Others waved Trump 2024 flags, one said “He’ll be back,” and merchants sold shirts disparaging President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Inside the conference, former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker falsely claimed the election was stolen from Trump and warned that Democrats sought to extend the counting period after Election Day to “find” ballots. The reason that many states didn’t finish their counts for days, however, was because Republican legislatures mandated mail-in ballots couldn’t be counted early.
Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods, called Trump “the real, the legitimate, and the still actual president of the United States.”
Goya’s board of directors has mandated that Unanue not speak to the news media without its approval following his repeated false claims of voter fraud.
The speakers have mostly been overshadowed by the swirl of activity in and out of the Hyatt Regency Orlando, including a golden statue of Trump, the Proud Boys promoting their alternate, far-right conference across town and pardoned Trump associate Roger Stone dancing with supporters.
Mask-wearing and social distancing have been spotty, with attendees booing organizers asking them to follow Hyatt’s policies. One credentialed media member, a YouTube personality, was asked to leave by security on Friday for repeatedly refusing to wear a mask.
Orange County, though, said Friday it sent task force members to the hotel and confirmed that Hyatt was attempting to enforce the rules.
The Hyatt hotel chain has faced increasing criticism for hosting the event, with “#boycotthyatt” trending on Twitter.
A Hyatt spokesperson told Fox Business Sunday the company was attempting to create “a highly inclusive environment” and that it believes in “the right of individuals and organizations to peacefully express their views, independent of the degree to which the perspectives of those hosting meetings and events at our hotels align with ours.”
Story by Steven Lemongello and Ryan Gillespie, Orlando Sentinel.