WASHINGTON - Former U.S. President Donald Trump is set Sunday to stake his claim as the dominant Republican in the country, trying to win back party control of Congress next year and possibly run again for the presidency in 2024.
Trump is speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering in Orlando, Florida, of hundreds of the most ardent Republicans. While he has made some public comments since leaving Washington January 20, when his victorious Democratic reelection opponent, Joe Biden, took power, Trump's speech is his first significant post-presidency address.
"I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we began together four years ago is far from over," Trump plans to say, according to excerpts released by aides.
"We are gathered this afternoon to talk about the future -- the future of our movement, the future of our party, and the future of our beloved country," he says.
But Trump also is likely to mount his claim to dominance of the party, to leave his options open to run again in three years for another four-year term in the White House, at least to stall any momentum for other possible 2024 Republican candidates, including U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and others eyeing the presidency.
Early national polls show voters giving wide approval to Biden's first month-plus as president, including from some Republicans. But Trump, even if widely rejected by Democrats and a majority of independents, remains particularly popular among many Republican voters.
Trump's future as the dominant Republican figure in the U.S. remains an open question, however. He is the only president in U.S. history to be twice impeached and acquitted and the first president in 90 years to lose political control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in a single term in office.
Conservatives at the three-day conference have cheered mention of his name, with many of them posing for pictures with a large golden caricature of his face that was sculpted in Mexico and now is being wheeled around the convention hall.
The Senate earlier in February voted 57-43, with seven Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in the chamber, to convict Trump of inciting a mob of hundreds of his supporters that rampaged into the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as lawmakers were certifying that he had lost his November re-election to Biden. The Senate vote count fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for a conviction.
The mayhem left five dead, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer. More than 200 rioters have been arrested as the investigation continues.
The CPAC conference is one of the most prominent annual gatherings for conservatives and comes at a time of growing debate within the Republican Party over whether to distance themselves from the former president or continue to tie their future with his.
Trump has signaled he wants to try to defeat or diminish the political standing of the 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to impeach him in January, a week ahead of him leaving office, and the seven who voted to convict him at his Senate trial.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, voted to acquit Trump at the impeachment trial, but then assailed Trump's role in fomenting the storming of the Capitol, in which rioters smashed windows, ransacked congressional offices and scuffled with police.
McConnell said Trump was "practically and morally responsible for provoking the events" that led to the Capitol siege.
Trump, in response, described McConnell as "a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack," and said if Republican senators are going to stay with him, "they will not win again."
Even so, McConnell said last week he would support Trump for the presidency if Republican voters nominate him again in 2024.
Asked whether Trump still controls the Republican Party, Senator Rick Scott of Florida told the "Fox News Sunday" show, "It's the voters' party." But he said he believes Trump is "going to be helpful" in the immediate future.
"We're on the right side of the issues," Scott said of Republicans. "The Democrats are on the wrong side."
One Republican lawmaker who voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, told CNN that if Republicans reclaim the White House in four years, "it will be because we speak to the issues, not by putting one person (Trump) on a pedestal. CPAC is not the entirety of the Republican Party."
"You've got to speak to voters who didn't vote for us last time," Cassidy said. "If we idolize one person, we will lose."
"I don't think he'll be our nominee," Cassidy said. "We need a person who lifts all boats."