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CPAC acted as a kind of tryout for those hoping to be Trump's VP pick

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And meanwhile, at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, there was little question that Donald Trump will again lead the Republican ticket. So the intrigue turned to his likely running mate. And several contenders had prime speaking slots. NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports on the tryouts for Trump's vice president.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: It was a full ballroom when the South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, took the stage.

KRISTI NOEM: Good afternoon, CPAC.

ORDOÑEZ: Grace Germany was among those who were moved by the governor's star power.

GRACE GERMANY: I mean, look at her. We're all jealous of her. She's gorgeous with that hair and her eyes.

ORDOÑEZ: Germany traveled from Austin, Texas, to attend the conference just outside of Washington, D.C. As a former business manager, Germany says she tends to prefer those with an economic background, but she likes Noem's experience as a farmer and that she's proven herself as a governor.

GERMANY: So I always tell people, don't listen to what people say in politics - check the record, not the rhetoric.

ORDOÑEZ: Noem was one of the first of the contenders to address the adoring crowd. She didn't waste time reminding them where her allegiances are.

NOEM: I was one of the first people to endorse Donald J. Trump to be our next president. Last year, when everyone was asking me if I was going to consider running for president, I said no. Why would you run for president if you can't win?

ORDOÑEZ: Always the showman, Trump has invited the speculation, talking about it on the campaign trail and stoking it for fundraising.

BRYAN LANZA: I mean, Donald Trump is watching. He is listening. He's looking at people's reactions.

ORDOÑEZ: Bryan Lanza, a former Trump aide who remains in close contact with the campaign, likened the competition to Trump's former reality show.

LANZA: This is like "The Apprentice." You've got to go front and center and make your case.

ORDOÑEZ: The organizers of CPAC stirred up the Veep stakes. This year, they featured a question on their popular straw poll about who should be Trump's running mate and made sure to give top contenders chances to speak.

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY ESCORT: Back up folks. Back up folks. Back up folks.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Elise, (inaudible) the Constitution?

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY ESCORT: Excuse us. Excuse us.

ORDOÑEZ: Contenders like Congresswoman Elise Stefanik was shadowed by a swarm of fans and photographers between interviews.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Elise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Elise.

(CHEERING)

ORDOÑEZ: Once on stage, Stefanik embraced the traditional attack role of vice presidential candidates, going after prosecutors who have filed charges against Trump.

ELISE STEFANIK: They indicted him four times for non-crimes and are trying to bankrupt him and destroy his successful business.

ORDOÑEZ: One of the more intriguing names being discussed this year is former Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. On stage, Gabbard made a point to attack and tried to turn the tables on her old party, who largely see Trump as a threat to democracy.

TULSI GABBARD: Our democracy is under attack. The perpetrators of this attack are those who, in the name of saving our democracy, are destroying it.

ORDOÑEZ: Another contender, former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, spoke at CPAC's Ronald Reagan Dinner, where he brought his familiar, fiery rhetoric.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: What does it mean to be an American?

ORDOÑEZ: He used it to stoke Trump's calls for a war against the so-called deep state, which Ramaswamy said should include shutting down the FBI, the CDC, the Department of Education and 75% of the federal workforce.

RAMASWAMY: If the next U.S. president, Donald Trump, can't work for you all for more than eight years, neither should those federal bureaucrats reporting into him, either.

ORDOÑEZ: Trump's pollster, Jim McLaughlin, took the stage at the end of the conference, along with CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp and Trump's former chief of staff, Steve Bannon, to announce the results of the straw poll.

JIM MCLAUGHLIN: This was the fun one. It might be a little...

ORDOÑEZ: McLaughlin built up the anticipation, making the crowd wait to hear the results about who should run shotgun with Trump.

MCLAUGHLIN: All right, who do you think? It's a tie.

(CROSSTALK)

MCLAUGHLIN: It's a tie. Kristi Noem at 15, Vivek Ramaswamy - 15, Tulsi Gabbard - nine.

ORDOÑEZ: A tie between Kristi Noem and Vivek Ramaswamy - further down, Stefanik got eight. Senator Tim Scott, who was campaigning in South Carolina, also got eight. And while the CPAC straw poll is no crystal ball, it can reflect the direction that Trump's most loyal supporters want him to take. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Oxon Hill, Md.

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY WRAY SONG, "HOLD ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.