It isn’t easy to upstage Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich before a crowd of conservatives, but Donald Trump managed to pull it off.
The developer and reality television star made a surprise cameo Thursday at the first day of the annual gathering of the nation’s conservatives in Washington, saying he hasn’t ruled out a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
This year’s meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, has taken on added importance as an early forum for possible Republican presidential candidates in 2012. And it was clear by the end of the first day that the potent mixture of “tea party” rabble-rousing and anti-government libertarianism that upended the 2010 congressional elections remain as vibrant and potentially uncontrollable as ever.
Conservatives chose Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican congresswoman and a tea party favorite, to open the three-day conference. Her selection was a clear sign that the center of gravity among the party’s conservatives had moved in the movement’s direction.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, said as much early in the day: “The story of the last two years has been an awakening.”
The focus of the conference would be “on those people in the process of changing the world,” he said. “These are our new allies.”
Bachmann poked fun at herself during her remarks and criticized President Obama for “ushering in socialism.”
She was widely mocked last month after staring into the wrong camera while delivering a tea party response to Obama’s State of the Union address. At the start of her speech Thursday, she stared directly ahead and said, “Someone told me I needed to find the right camera.”
But Bachmann, former House Speaker Gingrich and other speakers were upstaged by “The Donald,” who said he would decide whether to pursue a presidential bid by June.
“America is missing quality leadership,” said Trump, who has considered presidential bids in the past. “I am well acquainted with winning.”
Much of Trump’s speech was devoted to self-promotion as he spoke of his credentials as an entrepreneur and a businessman. “We need a competitive person. We need a highly competent person or we’re going to have serious trouble very quickly,” he said.
Trump had the crowd eating out of his hand until he struck a tripwire, telling them that Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas, could not win the presidency. The cheers turned to catcalls.
“I like Ron Paul, but he has no chance of getting elected,” Trump said.
Paul won the presidential straw poll at CPAC last year — and by the sound of things, he stands a good chance of winning it again when votes are counted Saturday.
Paul’s supporters also booed Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former Defense secretary, who showed up to accept an award. Paul has been a fierce critic of the war in Iraq. Some in the crowd also booed former Vice President Dick Cheney, who introduced Rumsfeld.
Bachmann, Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were among the possible GOP presidential contenders to address the gathering.
On Friday, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota are expected to appear.
Staff writer Paul West of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.