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The GOP's presidential nominee isn't likely to be moderate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Donald Trump's grip on the Republican Party looked as strong as ever over the weekend at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. But on the same day that Trump spoke at CPAC, one of his chief potential rivals for the GOP presidential nomination - that is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis - drew attention with a bombastic speech in California. On top of that, a popular moderate Republican says he will not run for president.

NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here to tell us what this all means for 2024. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I want to start with former President Trump's appearance at CPAC. What was the mood like there during his speech, and what did he actually say?

MONTANARO: Well, it was certainly the Trump show. You know, the halls were lined with Trump gear, plenty of sequined hats and shirts and Trump acolytes making the rounds. His nearly two-hour speech...

CHANG: Wow.

MONTANARO: ...By far drew the largest crowd and the wildest applause, and he put down a marker for what he represents in 2024.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: 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. I am your retribution.

(CHEERING)

MONTANARO: Yeah, that brought the crowd to its feet. He also said the GOP used to be ruled by, quote, "freaks, neocons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools." But he made it clear that, in his view, he is the future of the Republican Party and that he would run even if he was indicted, by the way. All of that was good enough for CPAC. He won the unscientific straw poll there of attendees with 62%, followed in a distant second by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at 20%.

CHANG: Oh, so, clearly the frontrunner at CPAC. It's very clear who the attendees want to be president, at least there. But DeSantis - I understand he gave his own speech over the weekend and got a lot of attention - right? - for his policies, especially on education.

MONTANARO: That's right. He spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: And I believe parents in the state of Florida should be able to send their kids to elementary school without having an agenda jammed down their throats. They should not be teaching a second-grader that they can choose their gender. That is wrong, and that is not going to happen in the state of Florida.

MONTANARO: Yeah. He also vowed to eliminate university professor tenure, and he wants to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher ed because he sees those as discrimination. So even though he is viewed as this potential principal alternative to Trump, you know, it's really not like he's any kind of moderate.

CHANG: Right, exactly. Well, one person who had been thought of as a possible moderate choice for the 2024 nomination was Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland. But I understand yesterday he said he's out?

MONTANARO: Yeah. You know, he said, ultimately, he didn't want to crowd out the field and make it easier for Trump to win the nomination. Here's what he said on CBS' "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

LARRY HOGAN: I think I can make a - continue to contribute toward getting the Republican Party back to a more traditional big-tent party that can win elections again without causing - being part of a train wreck that might repeat history and just allow us to nominate Donald Trump as our nominee. Because I think that would be bad for the party and bad for the country.

MONTANARO: You know, it's interesting because over the past decade, the most popular governors in the country consistently were Hogan, Phil Scott in Vermont and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts - all Republican governors, all in blue states. And they have next to 0% chance of becoming the GOP nominee for president because the heart of the party right now is with the culture warriors and not the pragmatists.

CHANG: Exactly. That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.