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March 1, 2021, 8:21 a.m. EST

Trump is dominant presence at CPAC in Orlando, Fla., ahead of Sunday speech

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By Associated Press

A conference nominally dedicated to the future of the conservative movement has turned into an ode to Donald Trump as speakers declare their fealty to the former president and attendees pose for selfies with a golden statue of him sporting beachwear and an atypically standard-length tie.

As the Republican Party grapples with deep divisions over the extent to which it should maintain its embrace of Trump — with the most powerful Republican in Congress having excoriated Trump as responsible for the deadly Capitol siege of Jan. 6 but later going on to allow that he’d support him in 2024 if need be — after losing the White House and Senate control in November’s elections, those gathered at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference made clear they are not ready to move on from the former president, nor from his baseless charges that the November election was rigged against him.

See: Lies, disinformation and conspiracy theories are increasingly being embraced as acceptable political strategy, AP investigation finds

“Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born and Ivy League–educated Texas Republican who last week derided Democrats as the party of elitist country-club denizens and lionized Republicans as the party of the lunch-pail crowd , and is one of several potential 2024 presidential contenders who spoke at the event, being held this year in Orlando as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who also is believed to harbor hopes of riding Trump-wing popularity to a Republican presidential nomination, largely eschews COVID-19 restrictions .

Key Words: Ted Cruz responds to John Boehner reportedly telling him to ‘go f— yourself’

Trump, who has controversially made a private club in South Florida his full-time residence rather than return to New York after his election loss, on Sunday will be making his first post-presidential appearance at the conference, and aides say he will use the speech to reassert his power.

See: Palm Beach County won’t follow DeSantis order to lower flags in Florida for late right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh

The program underscored the split raging within the GOP, as many establishment voices argue the party must move on from Trump to win back the suburban voters who abandoned them in November , helping to elect President Joe Biden to the White House and then two Democrats to unseat Republican senators in Georgia runoffs.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and others worry Trump will undermine the party’s political future if he and his conspiracy theories continue to dominate Republican politics.

Don’t miss: Trump reportedly set to tell CPAC audience that he’s ‘still in charge’ of Republican Party and is its ‘presumptive’ 2024 presidential candidate

Also see: Kevin McCarthy becomes poster boy for Republicans walking back their recent Trump criticism

But at the conference, speakers continued to fan disinformation and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, with panels dedicated to amplifying false claims of mass voter fraud that have been dismissed by the courts, state election officials and Trump’s own administration.

Indeed, Josh Hawley, a Missouri first-term Republican senator, another potential 2024 hopeful, drew perhaps the loudest Friday applause and a standing ovation when he bragged about his objection to the congressional certification of Biden’s election.

He was the first senator to mount such a challenge, and many view his announcement of that intention as having catalyzed other Republicans , led by Cruz, to do the same, raising hopes among the Trump faithful that then–Vice President Mike Pence could legally reject on Jan. 6 the 306-232 Biden win in the Electoral College (and the underlying popular-vote-winning margin of nearly 7.1 million).

“I thought it was an important stand to take,” Hawley said.

See: ‘This is how democracy dies’: Pro-Trump mob storms Capitol in bid to overturn election

A widely viewed photograph shows Hawley on Jan. 6 pumping a fist as he passed a pro-Trump crowd whose members would within hours storm the Capitol building in their bid to halt the election-certification process.

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