Republican party in the long shadow of Donald Trump at CPAC
The 75-year-old billionaire and former US president Donald Trump is due to speak on February 26, 2022, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida
The 75-year-old billionaire and former US president Donald Trump is due to speak on February 26, 2022, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida

Orlando (AFP) - Donald Trump may have lost the last US election and be under investigation over the 2021 Capitol riot, but the former president's dominance remains undented in the Republican party, where he is virtually unchallenged.

The 75-year-old billionaire is due to speak on Saturday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida -- an opportunity to gild his popularity.

Even before his arrival at the hotel hosting the conference, Trump's presence is felt in the numerous red "Make America Great Again" hats and in speeches, like that of Senator Ted Cruz, rife with taunts and attacks on figures reviled by conservatives.

"Trump is so popular that whatever position he takes most Republicans feel that they have to go along with them or at least not overly criticize them," Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida, told AFP.

"Because if they do, the president is going to take political revenge."

- 'Future of the party' -

Trump's influence looms large as midterm legislative elections approach in November, with the political risks to Republicans who don't fall in line implied in some of his statements. 

Last month, Trump suggested he might pardon those who participated in the January 6 assault on the US Capitol if he were reelected president, a provocative proposal met with little pushback from Republicans save a handful, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who said those who stormed the seat of US democracy to stop the certification of Democratic President Joe Biden's election win needed to be held accountable.

The former president continues to insist the election was stolen, despite 50 percent of Republican voters wanting to put those accusations aside and look to the future, according to a Politico poll published earlier this month.

"I think many of the Republican leaders, including a lot of campaign managers, would rather put that behind them," Jewett said.

"They don't see it as the future of the party. They'd rather not talk about any issues that could be controversial with voters."

But Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, underscored that Trump "is still a person whose endorsement is sought after, especially in the most conservatives areas."

She added, however, that "we are increasingly seeing that some of the language and tone things don't work as well with woman voters. And they are often the swing voters."

- DeSantis, a possible adversary? –

Trump's dominance is such that few other leading voices stand out in the party, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appearing to be the only possible exception.

On Thursday, DeSantis' CPAC speech, in which he again criticized Biden and presented himself as a defender of individual freedom against a heavy-handed federal government, was met with cheers and applause. 

Some of his policies in Florida, such as prohibiting Covid-19 mask mandates in schools, made him a favorite of media like Fox News. 

While DeSantis hasn't said he's aiming for the White House, he also hasn't ruled it out even if Trump runs.

A poll released this week by the University of North Florida found that among Republicans registered in the state, the governor is almost neck and neck with Trump as a favorite for president. 

"As a governor, DeSantis has a very good feel of the economical issues that affect local governments and local businesses," MacManus said.

"And he's able to speak about the economy in a way more meaningful to people as the grassroot. And right now the economy is the big issue."

A possible sign of DeSantis' growing influence, according to the New York Times, is that he's drawn Trump's ire by refusing to declare he won't run for president in the 2024 election even if the former president stands.

Trump, who was a key contributor to DeSantis' rise from little-known politician to governor of Florida -- a key state in presidential polls -- expects loyalty.  

"I think that, at this point, it will be political suicide if DeSantis comes out against Trump," said Jewett.