Conquering Trump returns to conservative summit

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A conquering President Trump will return to CPAC on Friday to address conservative activists, who are happy with his first month in office but have yet to be completely sold on his agenda.

A year ago, Trump won just 15 percent in the straw poll of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference, finishing a distant third behind the winner, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzRepublicans seek to temper fallout from latest Russia bombshells Cruz says Americans outside Beltway unconcerned with Mueller investigation Cruz condemns King's white supremacy remark: 'It was stupid' and 'he needs to stop' MORE (R-Texas), at 40 percent, and runner-up Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio slams NY Times for 'absurd criticism' of Bolton over Iran Rubio knocks Democrats over meaning of 'compromise': It 'means when 3 or 4 Reps vote with the Dems' Will 2019 be the year we finally stand up to China? MORE (R-Fla.), at 30 percent.

Trump has since taken over the Republican Party, and in last year’s GOP presidential primary he triumphed over both Cruz and Rubio.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Stephen Bannon received standing ovations from CPAC attendees as they slammed the media and talked up Trump’s agenda.

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White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who received a similarly warm reception, joked that enthusiasm for the president was so high that “by tomorrow, this will be TPAC.”

Conservatives attending the meeting said the president has eased concerns over his ideological principles by selecting what Cruz on Thursday called the most conservative cabinet in memory.

“They are pumped about who Trump has appointed to his cabinet and about his Supreme Court nominee. They are happy about what they’re seeing coming out of this administration,” said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who for years was one of the most conservative members of the Senate and a regular attendee at CPAC.

Brownback said doubts about Trump among conservatives have “by and large” receded, though he acknowledged they haven’t completely settled.

There is disquiet over Trump’s talk of a $1 trillion infrastructure investment package, and the president’s pledge not to touch Medicare is another point of contention from conservatives who see it as a major driver of federal deficits.

Trump’s criticism of trade deals and promises to renegotiate them — his economic nationalism championed by Bannon — has caused some angst from rural conservatives who have long sought markets for agricultural products.

“There’s still people who are trying to figure out the economic populism message to some degree, what all that means,” Brownback added.

CPAC has never been home turf for Trump.

He pulled out of the conference at the last minute last year in the midst of a controversy over several donations he made to the American Conservative Union, the group that sponsors the conference. Rivals grumbled that he was trying to influence the outcome of the straw poll.

A year earlier, he didn’t even register in the 2015 poll, which Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul to have hernia surgery in Canada Ron Paul: Remove incentives for illegal immigrants instead of building border wall Congress must take the next steps on federal criminal justice reforms MORE (R-Ky.) won with 25.7 percent support, followed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who collected 21.4 percent support.

In 2014, another CPAC poll won by Paul, Trump finished tied for 14th place with 1 percent along with former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP senators rebuke Trump for using 'Wounded Knee' as 'punchline' GOP senators challenge Trump on shutdown strategy Republican senators skeptical of using national emergency for wall funding MORE (R-S.D.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks Dreamers-for-wall trade going nowhere in House On The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown MORE (R-Ohio).

Jim DeMint, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former senator from South Carolina, said Trump’s poor performance reflected his lack of organization more than any inherent unpopularity.

“You know the way these straw polls work, it’s basically who’s organized and bussing people in to do it. It’s never been reflective of which conservative is the most popular,” said DeMint.

He said if CPAC were polling attendees for the 2020 GOP nomination, Trump would win.

Because Trump is a pragmatist looking to cut deals and rack up accomplishments, DeMint said conservative activists can’t sit back and assume his administration will continue on the same trajectory as the past several months, when his Cabinet and court picks met their expectations.

“I think he is very practical. He wants to do what works and we’re going to show him that conservative ideas work,” he said.

Trump increased trust among conservatives during the campaign when he tapped Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceUS calls for ‘new government’ in Venezuela The Hill's 12:30 Report: Giuliani says Trump team should be allowed to 'correct' Mueller report | Trump closer to declaring national emergency | Congress approves back pay for federal workers Latest US-China talks: Credit for good behavior, not much more MORE, a regular CPAC attendee, as his running mate.

Robert Bluey, the editor in chief of The Daily Signal, a conservative publication, who started attending CPAC in 2003, said activists didn’t know what to think of him in the past because “he didn’t have a policy record.”

“All of the other people who were running for president, you could see where they stood on issues of life and taxes and spending,” he noted. “There was some skepticism because of things he had said in the past in TV interviews and his association with some politicians.”

Trump had donated money to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump boasts about checking gas prices while in motorcade: 'You think Hillary Clinton would've done that?' Harry Reid on Iraq War vote: 'It tainted my heart' New Hampshire is ‘must-win’ state for Warren, says veteran political reporter MORE and in 2008 hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at his Palm Beach resort hotel Mar-a-Lago.

He convinced Republican voters during the campaign that those expressions of support were nothing more than practical business maneuvering done to survive in Washington’s pay-to-play environment of policymaking and regulation.

Over the last three months, he won points among activists by naming former Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a leading deficit hawk in Congress, to head his budget office; Betsy DeVos, a prominent advocate for vouchers and school choice, to head the Education Department; former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a leading opponent of federal environmental regulation, to head the Environmental Protection Agency; and former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), an outspoken advocate of Medicare reform, to run the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s probably still a trust-but-verify approach that a lot of people take but they’re more receptive to him based on his actions,” Bluey said of conservatives’ evolving views of Trump.

Ben Kamisar contributed.