ORLANDO, Fla. – Former President Donald Trump isn't the leader of the free world anymore. But many of the attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, still want him to be the leader of the Republican Party.
The annual conservative confab, even during its first event after the Trump presidency, is still very much a pro-Trump gathering.
Make America Great Again hats are some of the most popular attire among the attendees, and there's plenty of locations for people to buy more Trump gear. There are even some folks in "Students for Trump" yarmulkes and the viral "Lady MAGA" drag queen is one of the most visible attendees.
But despite the pro-Trump nature of the gathering, many attendees aren't necessarily committed to Trump being the 2024 presidential nominee. In fact, many CPAC attendees thought Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who gave the first major address of CPAC Friday, could be the party's standard-bearer going forward.
"I think President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party. He is still the leader even if he's not president -- at least of our party," said Val Biancaniello, who was a Pennsylvania delegate for Trump at the 2020 Republican National Convention. "I'm looking forward to President Trump coming here and speaking on Sunday, seeing what he has to say. He still has a huge amount of support in the Trump base."
But despite her support for Trump, Biancaniello said she thinks 2024 may be DeSantis' time.
"I really like Ron DeSantis in '24. I think President Trump has a huge role in our party ... fundraising and helping candidates get elected. His America First policy is still a very strong sentiment," she said. "If the theme of CPAC is 'America Uncancelled,' I think Ron DeSantis is really the face of that right now ... He's a proactive governor instead of a reactive governor."
"We've seen this with [Ronald] Reagan. Even when Reagan left office we didn't want to see him go away, because obviously when someone does good for a party you don't just want to push him out," said Aaron Rosenthal, who runs a Facebook Page called Americaplus.
"The way it stands right now, if I were to make my very own prediction, my hopes as a native Floridian is it's going to be our very own Ron DeSantis," Rosenthal said when asked about who may be the 2024 nominee.
"He was our past president so he's definitely a leader," Michael Straw, the Media Borough, Pennsylvania, Republican Party Chairman, said of Trump. "At this point, I think we have to look at a multitude of leaders because he may not be the only person that's looking at the nomination for 2024."
"If Donald Trump doesn't get in, I'm gonna say Gov. DeSantis" will get the 2024 GOP nomination, Straw added.
Aaron Timpko, a CPAC attendee who is a Florida native and took advantage of the fact that CPAC was moved to Orlando to explore the movement, also told Fox News DeSantis may be the best person for the GOP in 2024.
"Donald Trump undoubtedly has a role as a leader of the Republican Party," Timpko said. "With how much he has changed the Republican Party ... he will continue to be a leader going forward."
"I'd have to go with DeSantis or Ted Cruz," Timpko responded when asked who might be the 2024 GOP nominee. "Somebody who is not Trump. Somebody in the Republican Party who can stand up to the media with a bit more regality than Trump can. Despite how wonderful he was for the country, we can't have a media focusing on him for the next four years instead of Biden."
"One-hundred percent, I think he has a role," Carson Wolf, who is attending CPAC with his parents, said of Trump. "I think he defined the future of the Republican Party as a populist organization. You know, we used to be so conservative and always sticking to the same rules and the same set of standards that haven't evolved. But he has pushed us forward in helping us become a more national populist side of things."
But Wolf said he hopes the GOP will go with someone other than Trump as its 2024 presidential nominee.
"I can see him as the Republican nominee," Wolf said. "I personally really want to see somebody like Gov. DeSantis or somebody like Dan Crenshaw running. I think we need a new face, you know? But I love Trump and I'd be so satisfied to see him in 2024."
Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr. will deliver an address to the CPAC crowd on Friday while the former president will be the keynote speaker on Sunday afternoon.
On Friday, CPAC kicked off with an emphasis on the Constitution.
High-profiles speakers including Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, spoke about the Bill of Rights and how it applies to modern America.
Lee's speech was titled "Why the Left Hates the Bill of Rights ... and We Love It."
Cruz is considered to have potential presidential ambitions, as are Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., both of whom also addressed CPAC on Friday.
Fox Nation is a sponsor of CPAC 2021.