Turning Point’s 11,000 attendees packed a convention hall and meeting rooms to hear right-wing commentators and a handful of elected officials, most of whom criticized “woke” liberalism and RINO Republicans.
At times, from the stage here, Trump and his policies were praised. So were DeSantis’s. But aside from failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, speakers largely shunned the fledgling 2024 campaign, with most refusing to pledge allegiance to Trump in his comeback presidential bid.
“I love you both very much. So I really don’t want to deal with the fact that they might have to compete against each other,” said Kevin Flaherty, a 19-year-old conference attendee from Detroit. But Flaherty said he would support DeSantis over Trump, believing the Florida governor would appeal more to independent voters.
The balancing act was on full display during the event’s opening session on Saturday, when a young audience member asked the evening’s keynote speaker, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which of the two men he would support. in a presidential primary.
Carlson chuckled. He suggested that his endorsement wouldn’t matter much anyway. He touted DeSantis’ undeniable appeal to voters in Florida and beyond.
Carlson then proceeded to talk about Trump in the past tense.
“I am very grateful that Donald Trump ran in 2016. Donald Trump completely changed my view on everything,” Carlson said. “He introduced himself and said things like, ‘Why don’t we have a border?’ Or my personal favorite is like, ‘What’s the point of NATO?’
“And it just laid everything out, and I’m so thankful I saw it.”
Carlson told attendees that he “will not be endorsing anyone” in the upcoming presidential primary. And he’s not taking any guesses as to which man will emerge victorious, either.
“At this point, it looks like two forces are moving towards each other at great speed,” Carlson said of the possible Trump-DeSantis matchup he is watching unfold. “So we are two years less than a month away from the presidential election, and I am completely comfortable putting my utter ignorance on full and flowery display, and telling you that I have no idea. But I can’t wait to see it.”
Obvious Trump acolytes, his own son, Donald Trump Jr., and future daughter-in-law, Kimberly Guilfoyle, spoke out about him. But they focused on promoting Trump’s record during his tenure in the White House, without making specific mention of his last campaign. Trump Jr. sneered that his father was the best qualified person to “stand up to not only the Democrats, but also the donor class.”
At one point, Guilfoyle read a list of Trump’s accomplishments in office, before ending his speech with the former president’s trademark campaign slogan: that the crowd could “make America great again.”
Lake, a charismatic former television news reporter, became an instant sensation on the right by defending Trump’s disproven stolen election theories, as she did on Sunday regarding her own race, which she lost last month. She received applause when she declared that she wanted to see Trump back in office.
“That man cares more about this country than anyone I know,” Lake said.
But other former Trump loyalists held back.
Senator joseph hawley (R-Mo.), who was among the most vocal members of Congress of their refusal to certify the 2020 election results, did not mention Trump in his speech.
Kayleigh McEnany, one of Trump’s former press secretaries, recalled moments from her time working in the White House and how she faced challenges at work. But her talk focused on the Trump of the past, without mentioning his return to office.
While the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting last month featured speeches from a list of potential 2024 candidates, including DeSantis, the Las Vegas event was more intimate and geared toward donors. In Phoenix, the vast majority of people who attended appeared to be in their late 20s.
During the Turning Point student caucus in July, Trump overwhelmingly won the opinion poll, receiving 79 percent support to DeSantis’ 19 percent when both were options in a hypothetical 2024 primary. The poll was sponsored by the Turning Point’s political arm, Turning Point Action.
There will be no redoing of the survey at the December conference. Instead, the organization will poll attendees about their preference to chair the Republican National Committee, as Ronna McDaniel faces a challenge in next month’s leadership elections.
New national polls released last week showed the Republican base drifting away from Trump ahead of the 2024 presidential primary. Separate polls by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today/Suffolk University found DeSantis leading Trump by double digits in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. in the primary, while other polls show the former president’s preference among Republicans falling this fall.
Pete Duke, a 21-year-old attending the University of Tennessee, said he appreciates Trump, but it’s an “easy choice” to pick DeSantis as the party’s nominee in 2024. The problem with Trump? “All he does is talk about 2020,” Duke said.
“What I hear from people my age is: everyone who says ‘Come on Brandon’ at these football games, you ask them, they’ll say Ron DeSantis is our leader,” Duke continued. “Trump no. And everyone likes Trump.”
Younger activists in the Republican Party certainly like Trump. The showroom for the event included far fewer kiosks selling Trump memorabilia than recent conservative lectures aimed at an older demographic; here they were replaced by dozens of ring lights at selfie stations. But the signs of Trump were still everywhere.
Grace Rykaczewski, a 22-year-old from New Jersey, grabbed a newly purchased T-shirt dress with a grid of Trump’s facial expressions on it. Going forward, Rykaczewski said she plans to support Trump, given his impact on the anti-abortion movement in the United States. But she thinks Trump and DeSantis are “both really great choices.”
Acknowledging that DeSantis had signed a 15-week abortion ban this year, Rykaczewski said he could win her over if the Florida governor enforces stricter abortion laws, and wants to see younger blood in the White House.
“I think DeSantis is amazing. I love that he has a young family,” Rykaczewski said. “Potentially there would be a time where if DeSantis would step up and be the pro-life advocate that he needed him to be, he would probably support him.”