“I want to get to the elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about the Republican Party,” Sean Hannity told a slightly rowdy, tipsy crowd at the CPAC pre-debate party on Thursday night.
The Fox News host had warmed up the audience with his usual mixture of throwing foam footballs into the crowd and doing an extended Bill Clinton impression that would have been tiresome in 1991. And now it was time to get to what truly was the “elephant in the room” on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference: the extraordinary race for the Republican presidential primary.
The word Trump was uttered maybe two or three times throughout the opening day of the annual conservative conference, as though the ongoing presidential race was merely a fictional subplot on a TBS political drama.
“How many of you here support Ted Cruz?” Hannity asked. Loud cheers erupted from the conservative crowd.
“How many of you here support Donald Trump?” An extraordinary wave of boos arose.
“How many of you like Marco Rubio?” Mostly cheers, some boos mixed in.
“How many of you in this room want John Kasich to win?” A prevailing sense of indifference, tilting toward boos.
“I would say, in this order: Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Kasich, right?” The wrongness of that brought itself some boos, but Hannity moved on.
Sean Hannity is a Trump … what’s the word here ... shill. Near the end of Hannity’s warmup spiel—after he said he wished Mitt Romney were “as strong against Barack Hussein Obama as he was today” against Trump—he asked the crowd to stand up and pledge to support the Republican nominee for president, even if it’s Trump. Most of the crowd did. But they sure didn’t like the guy at all once the debate began.
Cruz got cheers for anything he said—and since he had a strong debate, that’s sensible—and Rubio got cheers mostly when he was going after Donald Trump. Trump got cheers when he talked about the wall. Otherwise, except for the stray fan here or there in a red “Make America Great Again” hat, Trump was the enemy.
“There is no doubt that Donald has done well in these elections. There is no doubt about that. The numbers are there,” Rubio said early on. “Here is what the numbers also say: Two-thirds of the people who cast a vote in a Republican primary or caucus have voted against you. They do not want you to be our nominee.” The crowd signaled its approval. CPAC-ers also appreciated Rubio’s mentioning of how Trump’s clothing line is produced in China and Mexico, and strongly disapproved when Trump went after Rubio as “this little guy” or when he would say that “the real con artist is Sen. Marco Rubio.” Though CPAC attendees would certainly take Rubio, “the establishment candidate,” over Trump, it doesn’t mean they’re particularly excited about him. During the first commercial of the debate, former Sen. Rick Santorum, a failed candidate again this cycle turned Rubio supporter, came onstage to sing the praises of his endorsee. He did not receive much of a response.
But CPAC is Cruz’s crowd. These are movement conservatives, and Cruz has run a campaign—and a career—as the platonic ideal of a movement conservative candidate.
After Rubio and Fox debate moderator Megyn Kelly teamed up on Trump over the scandal that is Trump University, Cruz jumped in for his piece: “Megyn, let me ask the voters at home: Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election? The stakes in this election are too high. … And if we nominate Donald, we're going to spend the spring, the fall, and the summer with the Republican nominee facing a fraud trial.” The cheers rolled in.
“Oh, stop it,” Trump responded. He continued trying to talk over Cruz.
“Donald, learn not to interrupt,” Cruz said. “It’s not complicated. Count to 10, Donald. Count to 10.” That did the trick. Cruz dug in:
The stakes are too high, and if you are one of the 65 percent to 70 percent of Republicans who recognize that nominating Donald would be a disaster, then I ask you to come join us. If you’re supporting other candidates, come join us. We welcome you to our team, because we’ve demonstrated not once, not twice, not three times, but five separate times we have beat Donald, and if you don't want him to be the nominee, then I ask you to stand with us as a broad coalition of people who believe in the Constitution, believe in freedom, and want to turn this country around.
CPAC gave Cruz the first standing ovation of the night. Here, he was the winner of the debate by a landslide. The judgment outside this temple of ideological conservatism, though, might differ.