Potential Trump VP Picks Flock to CPAC, Auditioning for the Spot By His Side

The South Carolina primary is tomorrow, and Nikki Haley, a former governor of the state, is approaching a critical juncture in her presidential campaign. She is locked in a seemingly desperate struggle against former President Donald J. Trump, the dominant Republican front-runner, facing long odds in her home state as well as in crucial contests on Super Tuesday, March 5.

But away from the campaign trail, conservatives near Washington are celebrating Mr. Trump as if he has already secured the Republican presidential nomination. At the influential Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, which began on Wednesday, the question is not which Republican will face off against President Biden in November, but rather who will join Mr. Trump atop the ticket as his vice-presidential running mate.

At least four people who will speak at CPAC today are widely seen as contenders in the made-for-television spectacle that Mr. Trump’s potential vice-presidential selection process has become: Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and the entrepreneur and former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

And while the conference will conclude on Saturday with the group’s traditional straw poll, for the first time in at least a decade, the survey will include a question about vice-presidential preferences, asking attendees to pick the best running mate for Mr. Trump.

The former president has sought to cast an air of inevitability around his candidacy, and pushing a conversation about who will be on the ticket with him in November is one way he has tried to steer attention away from Ms. Haley.

Emulating a season of “The Apprentice,” the reality television show he hosted in his pre-presidential life, Mr. Trump and his campaign have for weeks stoked speculation about whom he will pick — highlighting different contenders at different campaign stops, gauging the reaction of his loyal rally attendees and scrutinizing the candidates’ performance as surrogates both on and off the campaign trail.

Which is why so many of these aspiring vice-presidential candidates are making the pilgrimage to the Gaylord hotel — where, just a few miles south of Washington, CPAC is being held — to audition for a place at Mr. Trump’s side, even as he has not yet won enough delegates to clinch his party’s nomination.

Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said the lineup of speakers was aimed at appealing to conservative activists, who are largely aligned behind Mr. Trump. This was not the year, Mr. Schlapp said, to “reward blabbering congressmen.”

“Pat Buchanan was right — we are in a culture war,” Mr. Schlapp said, referring to the right-wing journalist and politician who in the 1990s advanced the kind of anti-immigration, blue-collar conservatism that Mr. Trump has championed. “There are heroes in that culture war and culprits, and we want to make sure we’re calling out the culprits and highlighting the heroes.”

It is a very different selection process from the one in 2016, when Mr. Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate just days before the Republican National Convention. At the time, Mr. Trump was still very much an outsider in the Republican Party and had to work to fend off attempts to derail his nomination and incite a contested convention. Going against his instincts, which would have favored a deferential running mate who would aggressively defend him against his many critics, Mr. Trump settled on Mr. Pence in an effort to unite the party.

Now, Mr. Trump might as well be the Republican Party, and he is likely to favor the candidates who are most deferential to him even as he weighs factors such as whether a woman or a person of color could help win voters in the general election.

Michael C. Bender contributed reporting.

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