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As speculation mounts on Trump's running mate, contenders pitch the base at CPAC

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference has long been a proving ground for would-be presidents, launching the political aspirations of heavyweights like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

This year, all eyes were on who could be No. 2.

Former President Trump has handily dispatched nearly all of his 2024 primary rivals, with only former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley hanging on while trailing by yawning polling margins and losing by double digits in every state that's voted so far.

With the GOP nomination all but determined, speculation over Trump's potential running mate is skyrocketing in the party -- and many of the lead contenders gathered at CPAC at the same time in what was viewed by some political observers as a tryout of sorts.

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"CPAC is an opportunity for the VP hopefuls to make their case to the MAGA base. At the end of the day, Trump will probably have an 'Apprentice'-like audition for the VP slot," said one senior GOP strategist in Trump's orbit, who asked not to be quoted by name to speak more freely. "CPAC is a good venue because it is the most MAGA of the base -- the true believers."

"I think it's wide open," this person added. "Trump keeps his cards very close."

Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and Ohio Sen. JD Vance all spoke at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, offering a chance to test different messages to Trump's most loyal enthusiasts and for the party to see how much their rhetoric resounds with the GOP base.

The schedule of participants was so packed that conservative activist Tom Fitton, the head of Judicial Watch, remarked right after Lake's speech: "It feels like I'm the only one here not running for vice president."

PHOTO: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Md., Feb. 23, 2024.  (Alex Brandon/AP)
PHOTO: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Md., Feb. 23, 2024. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Donalds focused his speech largely on foreign policy, urging U.S. allies to invest more in shared defense and declaring, "Decide Joe Biden, which country matters more to you, the border of the United States or the border of Ukraine?"

Lake focused on the border, too, calling fentanyl a "weapon of mass destruction while praising Trump as "exactly the man we needed in 2015, and he's exactly the man we need today."

Noem touted populist policies implemented in her state as a blueprint for America, sparking applause by declaring, "I was the only governor in this country who never once closed a single business" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ramaswamy leaned into culture battles, warning of a "war between those of us who love the United States of America and our founding ideals and a fringe minority who hates this country and what we actually stand for."

Stefanik echoed Trump in warning that his enemies would "stop at nothing" to "steal this next election," a line that resounded with the crowd.

And Vance heaped praise on Trump while vilifying many lawmakers' eagerness to further aid Ukraine in fending off Russia's invasion rather than focusing more on domestic issues. "If the thing you care most about is a conflict 6,000 miles away, you should not be a leader in this country," he said.