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Voices: Three things we’re keeping an eye on at CPAC this week

Donald Trump speaks at CPAC (AP)
Donald Trump speaks at CPAC (AP)

The Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC, kicks off Wednesday night in National Habor just outside of Washington DC. This means that tons of college students wearing lanyards and red MAGA hats will descend on the nation’s capital for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The confab comes during a peculiar time for conservatism.  Republicans won the House majority and the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in June with its Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, while President Joe Biden remains largely unpopular. But the court's ruling played a role in the GOP’s midterm election losses; Republicans actually lost a US Senate seat. Furthermore, former president Donald Trump's continued presence and third White House run in as many cycles means the party can't really move on from him, even as he has proven to be a drag on the GOP's electoral prospects. And some of the party's big names won't even be at CPAC this week.

Here's what we will be watching at CPAC this week:

Where's DeSantis? CPAC comes as the 2024 Republican contest for president heats up, with a number of official and unofficial contenders in the mix. Mr Trump will deliver the closing address on Saturday. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley will speak, as will former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. But one major GOP figure will be conspicuously absent: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Rather, the GOP golden boy and favorite of big money will speak to the Club for Growth's donor summit. CPAC is typically Mr DeSantis' kind of crowd – younger, college-educated and much more willing to engage in "owning the libs." But will the activists take Mr DeSantis' snub personally?

Similarly, will Mr Trump or anyone else take swipes at Mr DeSantis as a way to curry favor with the former president? The CPAC Straw Poll, which is statistically meaningless but gives the winner momentum, will take place on Saturday before Mr Trump's speech. But many of the 2024 prospects will hope to leave an impression on the conservative crowd regardless of the results.

The GOP Agenda: CPAC also usually offers a preview of the top GOP talking points ahead of the upcoming election cycle. So far, much of the agenda seems to focus on "parents' rights", which is to say parents having a right to dictate what students learn in schools, which helped Republicans win the governorship in Virginia. Also on the agenda is breaking up "Big Tech" and "sacking the woke playbook," which will be led by former Auburn University football coach and Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville. There will undoubtably be a lot of focus on the US-Mexico border and immigration. But conspicuously, save for a panel with anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, there seems to be little mention of the Dobbs, which is arguably the greatest conservative legal victory in recent years but has proven to be politically radioactive.

The Matt Schlapp allegations: Earlier this year, a former Republican campaign worker accused Matt Schlapp, the head of American Conservative Union which runs CPAC, of groping him, which sparked a lawsuit. So far, Mr Schlapp has denied the allegations and he is slated to only give brief remarks before the conference kicks off in earnest on Thursday. But the accusations will undoubtedly create an air of discomfort throughout the festivities. On Thursday morning as CPAC was getting underway in earnest, Mr Schalpp avoided The Independent’s questions on the allegations against him.