Former President Donald Trump continues to reign supreme over the conservative wing of the Republican party, attending the four-day annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Closing out the conference, Trump presented himself as the ultimate leader to take on Democrats and "establishment" Republicans and calling the upcoming 2024 presidential election the "final battle."
"In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution," Trump said as he continues to ramp up his third presidential campaign.
"This is the final battle, they know it. I know it, you know it, and everybody knows it, this is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country."
Throughout his speech, Trump proclaimed himself as the leader who would "save" America while working to establish a contrast between himself and "establishment" Republicans.
"People are tired of RINOs and globalists; they want to see America first. That's what they want. It's not too complicated," Trump said.
"The Republican party was ruled by freaks, neocons, open border zealots and fools. We're never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush."
Trump then attacked Republicans who want to raise the Social Security retirement age.
"We're not going back to people that want to destroy our great social security system. Even some in our own party, I wonder who that might be. That want to raise the minimum age of social security to 70, 75 or even 80 in some cases, and then a route to cut Medicare to a level that it will no longer be recognizable," he said.
In a preview of his agenda if elected president, Trump focused on his usual host of conservative topics which included: securing the border, using the National Guard "until law and order is restored," and fighting for a Constitutional amendment to impost term limits on members of Congress.
He also talked about his newly announced competition to build new "freedom cities."
"I'll challenge the governors of all 50 states, all 50 states to join me in a great beautification campaign. We will rename our schools and boulevards, not after communists but great American patriots. We will get rid of bad and ugly buildings and return to the magnificent classical style of western civilization," he said.
However, in a change of position, Trump did endorse mail-in ballots, early voting, and ballot harvesting while highlighting Kari Lake's failed gubernatorial bid in Arizona.
"I will move heaven and Earth to finally secure our elections. All Republican governors should immediately go for paper ballots, one day voting and voter ID...they should go for that, paper ballots, same day voting," he said.
"Republicans must compete using every lawful means to win. That means swamping the left with mail in votes, early votes, and election day votes, have to do it. We have to change our thinking because some bad things happened."
Trump downplayed the credibility of multiple investigations he is under but took particular aim at the Fulton County investigation into his attempt to overturn the 2020 election after the foreperson spoke to media outlets.
"Jury foreman, a rather bizarre young woman is going around doing media interviews and saying exactly what's going on, one of many grand juries. Our opponents do anything they can to hurt me politically because they're afraid of me and they're afraid of you, that's what it is."
Speaking to reporters ahead of his speech, for the first time, Trump said Saturday that he would "absolutely" stay in the race for president even if he were to be criminally indicted.
"I wouldn't even think about leaving," Trump told reporters ahead of his speech. "Probably it will enhance my numbers."
Trump encouraged his supporters to remain active in his movement, saying now was the time to "restore" America and make it "powerful again."
"Change only happens if we plow fearlessly ahead and declare with one voice that the era of woke and weaponized government is over. That is our task, that is our mission and this is the turning point and the time for that decision because, as you've probably heard me say before, we will not back down, we will not bend, we will not quit, we will not yield," he said.
Trump made no specific mention of his potential Republican challenges including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence; however, he quipped to reporters "the more, the merrier" when asked about challengers jumping into the race.
"That's up to him," he said when asked about specifically about DeSantis. "He wouldn't have been elected if it weren't for me, but that's up to him...I welcome everybody."
Trump dominates DeSantis in straw poll
In no surprise, Trump overwhelmingly won CPAC's annual straw poll, receiving 62% of the vote -- slightly down from the last CPAC in Texas when he won 69% of the vote -- but still very much on top.
DeSantis came in second place with 20% of the vote. Perry Johnson, a businessman who announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination this week, received 5% of the vote, polling at third. Haley polled at 3%.
However, though the crowd favored Trump overwhelmingly, the former president failed to fill all the ballroom seats during his speech with the back of the room almost completely empty.
Some attendees predicted the results would be different if the CPAC crowd allowed for more diversity in the Republican Party, after former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump's most high-profile challenger, was heckled out of the hotel hallways one day earlier by Trump supporters.
"Right now, it is very skewed, it is very Trump centered around here," said Orlando Clark, a student at Penn State. "If we had these other candidates here, the straw poll results could definitely be different...but when you only have one side being represented, it's kind of skewing the results to a point where now, it's not even representative of more than half of the party."
"Not everybody is set on Donald Trump being our nominee right now. I mean, I know for sure I'm not," he added. "If he wins, then great, but I'm still not dead set on that. I don't think he's the best person to run."
"There's a lot of Trump support here. I'm sure the straw poll will reflect that, but I don't think that's a good thing, because we need different options," said Hunter Steach, another Penn State student. "I think younger leaders like Ron DeSantis are a stark contrast to people like Trump people like Biden," he added later on.
The straw poll also asked participants about their top picks for vice president. Lake, who clung to stolen elections throughout her CPAC appearances, came in first with 19.6% of the vote. DeSantis came in second at 14%.