The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CPAC begins with Trump angst, but no mention of his name

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference 2016 at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., outside Washington, on March 3. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off at a moment of darkness, after Donald Trump — once heckled at this event — became the undisputed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Two time zones away, the 2012 Republican nominee was scheduled to give a much-hyped, much-leaked speech, in which he would strip the bark off the "phony" mogul-turned candidate.

At CPAC, at first, it seemed better not to mention Trump at all.

"Some of you may be confused and dare I say even some upset by what’s happening in the presidential election," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), a former front-runner for the nomination who became the second serious contender to quit. "I want to offer you some enthusiasm, some optimism today, and tell you no matter what’s happening there, the conservative movement is alive and well in states all across America."

Walker, whose 2015 CPAC speech was defined by a gaffe about how his union-battling experience would equip him to tackle the Islamic State, went on to talk about the opportunities Republicans have to take back statehouses and how they have done so since Obama has been in office.

“No matter what you think about what’s happening in the presidential election, you can’t give up," he said. "We need your help in the states. We’re depending on you at the state and local level."

In the aisles of the Gaylord Convention Center, conservatives chattered about the downsides of Romney's speech. "It's going to help Trump," said Ron Fodor, mayor of Slippery Rock, Pa. "It feeds right into his message." Nearby, a group of students from Hillsdale College groused that Romney, an imperfect messenger, seemed to be absconding with the anti-Trump argument of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Onstage, some politicians who had been openly critical of Trump opted not to mention his name. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), one of the first elected Republicans to say he would never vote for Trump — and whose state holds caucuses this Saturday — referred obliquely to "someone on Twitter" who'd called him a "gym rat." The "someone" had been Trump. Sasse went on to ask activists to take the Constitution seriously, his Trump barbs carefully buried between the lines.

"You should be listening with the ears of grandmas and grandpas worried about their grandsons and granddaughters," he said. "I am anti-establishment, but what we need most of all is not someone who wants to breathe fire onto Washington, but someone who breathes passion into our children."

There was more fire — but still, no mention of Trump's name — when former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum took the stage. He referred to the "earthquake that's happening across this country," and acknowledged that conservative activists were panicking.

"They're nervous as all heck about what they're going to do," he said. "Well, now you know how the American public has felt over the past 10, 15, 20 years.... They've been putting their faith in the Republican Party, but they don't see anything happening."

Santorum, who has endorsed Rubio for president, mentioned the Floridian's name and got a smattering of applause. He talked right through it.

"We need to listen to the people who say: We're not with you anymore," he said. "They have every right to be upset."