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CPAC: Noem and Stefanik lead charge of the wannabe Trump VPs

<span>Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, said there are two kinds of people in the US: those that love America, and those that hate it.</span><span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, said there are two kinds of people in the US: those that love America, and those that hate it.Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

On Saturday, the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, will end with a straw poll. But given Donald Trump’s lock on the Republican nomination, attendees will not be asked who they want for president. They will be asked to choose between 17 possible vice-presidential picks.

Related: ‘Mentality of dictators’: Republican convert Tulsi Gabbard takes aim at former party at CPAC

On Friday, four such names were on the speakers’ roster.

“There are two kinds of people in this country right now,” the South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, told an audience in general uninterested in non-binary choices.

“There are people who love America, and there are those who hate America.”

As an applause line, it worked well enough. Noem hit out at “agendas of socialism and control”, boasted of taxes cut and railroads built, and decried conditions at the southern border, claiming other countries were using it “to infiltrate us, and destroy us”.

But she earned perhaps her loudest response with more simple red meat: “I’m just going to say it: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris suck.”

Perhaps tellingly for her straw poll chances, Noem’s statement that “I’ve always supported the fact that our next president needs to be President Trump” also earned cheers. Bland at face value, the line was a dig at other possible vice-presidential picks such as Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator who challenged Trump then fawningly expressed his love.

“I was one of the first people to endorse Donald Trump to be president,” Noem said. “Last year, when everyone was asking me if I was going to consider running, I said no. Why would you run for president when you know you can’t win?”

That was a question for another VP contender, Vivek Ramaswamy. Having made a brief splash in the primary – clashing with Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and Trump’s last remaining rival – the biotech entrepreneur landed the speaker slot at Friday night’s Ronald Reagan dinner.

Before that came two more contenders from outside the primary, Elise Stefanik of New York, the House Republican conference chair, and JD Vance of Ohio, the US Marine Corps reporter turned venture capitalist turned Hillbilly Elegy author and populist firebrand senator.

The author Michael Wolff once reported that Trump preferred women to wear “high boots, short skirts and shoulder-length hair”. Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, once a moderate, strode out as if in mid-Maga metamorphosis, long hair feathered and highlighted.

Her speech was full of Trump-esque lines. The media were the “loyal stenographers of the left”; she hectored the Ivy League college presidents she grilled in a hearing on campus antisemitism, earning Trump’s approval; the “Biden crime family” was to blame for “Bidenflation”.

No mention, obviously, that the chief source of unverified allegations about the “Biden crime family” was this week charged with lying to investigators and said, by prosecutors, to have ties to Russian intelligence.

Stefanik attempted a Trumpian move: changing the historical record. Finessing her experience of the January 6 Capitol attack, she said she “stood up for the election and constitutional integrity” – which could only be true under Trump’s definiton of those terms. With 146 other Republicans, Stefanik objected to key results.

It was a stark departure from her statement at the time, when Stefanik lamented a “truly a tragic day for America”, condemned “dangerous violence and destruction”, and called for Trump supporters who attacked Congress to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”.

That statement disappeared from Stefanik’s website. But such scrubbing may be unnecessary. Trump has little interest in truth. Perhaps Stefanik’s zealous speech, if a little flat compared with the sharp rabble-rousing of the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz shortly before, will prove persuasive. She was enthusiastically received.

Vance came next, making light of appearing for an interview, by the Newsmax host Rob Schmitt, rather than a speech of his own.

Relentlessly, the senator communicated anger, mostly at elites and politicians of both parties he said were dedicated to their own profit at the people’s expense.

“It’s a disgrace that every person here should be pissed off about,” he thundered.

Vance was angry about the need to stop funding Ukraine in its war with Russia, angry about the need to boost US manufacturing, angry about the lack of border and immigration reform.

Presenting himself as a proud “conservative knuckle-dragger” but also a foreign policy voice – a sort of global isolationist, just back from the Munich security conference – Vance was unrepentant over Senate Republicans’ decision to sink a bipartisan border deal and accused Democrats of using undocumented migrants for electoral ends. He said Google should be broken up, to combat leftwing bias, but also uttered a couple of lines he might hope Trump does not search up.

Singing Trump’s praises as a Washington outsider, Vance appeared to suggest he thought Trump was older than Biden, the Methuselah of the executive mansion, saying: “He was born I believe in 1940.” That would make Trump 83 or 84, not a supposedly sprightly 77.

Vance also said Americans were “too strong or too woken up” to be fooled by Biden again. Woken, not woke. But given Vance’s play-in video, in which Schmitt bemoaned the spread of “woke” ideas on the left, it seemed a half-bum note.

Finally, late on, came Ramaswamy. He posed his own binaries: “Either you believe in American exceptionalism or you believe in American apologism … Either you believe in free speech or you believe in censorship.” Then he reeled off positions – end affirmative action, frack and drill, crack down on illegal immigration – now in service of Trump.

It sounded more like a pitch for a cabinet job, say health secretary, than for vice-president. Maybe not commerce, overseeing the patent office. Hymning the founders, Ramaswamy said Thomas Jefferson “invented the polygraph test”. The third president used a polygraph, a machine for copying letters. He did not invent a test to see if a person is lying.

On Saturday, Kari Lake, an election-denying Senate candidate from Arizona, will speak before Trump, Ramaswamy after. Then the CPAC attendees, dedicated conservatives pausing in their perusal of Maga hammocks and Woke Tears water, for sale at the CPAC market, will say who they want for VP.