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    Potential Trump VP Picks Flock to CPAC, Auditioning for the Spot By His Side

    Influential Republicans vying to be Donald J. Trump’s vice-presidential running mate appeared at a conservative conference near Washington, auditioning for the spot at Mr. Trump’s side on the campaign trail with fire and flattery.

    Four people seen as contenders in the “Apprentice”-like spectacle made appearances on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. They included Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kari Lake, a Senate candidate in Arizona who rose to conservative prominence with a full-throated embrace of Mr. Trump’s stolen election lies. The conservative and former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was scheduled to speak later in the evening.

    The contenders appeared to understand that they had an audience of one in Mr. Trump. Their approaches differed, but their speeches were similar in tone and content: underscoring their loyalty through effusive praise and scorching rhetoric for the base, while portraying the former president, who faces 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases, as a martyr for Republicans.

    Ms. Stefanik, a onetime moderate Republican whose reinvention as a close Trump ally has help elevate her to a position in the House leadership, made a point of aggressively defending Mr. Trump for his legal troubles. She played up the Republican-led congressional inquiries into President Biden and his son Hunter by repeatedly referring to them as the “Biden crime family” even as much of the testimony in the Biden cases has been called into question.

    “The closer President Trump gets to victory, the dirtier the Democrats, their stenographers in the media and the corrupt prosecutors will get. They will stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, in their attempt to steal this next election,” Ms. Stefanik said.

    She also sought to cast herself as an early supporter of Mr. Trump despite her earlier private criticism of him as a disaster for the Republican Party. Mr. Trump and his campaign have signaled that loyalty and deference to the former president are key qualities.

    On the eve of the South Carolina primary, and ahead of other crucial presidential contests on March 5, Super Tuesday, Mr. Trump and his campaign have invited speculation about his potential running mate as a way to project an inevitability to his candidacy, and steer attention away from Nikki Haley, his insurgent rival in the presidential race.

    In interviews, CPAC attendees offered varying opinions about whom Mr. Trump should pick, with some highlighting unapologetic Trump acolytes like Mr. Ramaswamy and Ms. Stefanik. But many also qualified their choices by saying they would be happy with whichever candidate Mr. Trump selected.

    “I don’t have a huge opinion,” said Mitch Boggs, a state representative from Missouri, adding that Ms. Stefanik would be his personal pick. But, he said, “I want Trump to pick who he wants to pick.”

    Mr. Vance, sitting for an interview with a host from the conservative news channel Newsmax, on the convention’s main stage said that “Donald Trump is maybe the first politician in my lifetime who will be much poorer for having served his country. That is the best evidence that we should re-elect him in 2024, he has sacrificed for his country.” (Before the enormous penalties from the civil cases against him, Mr. Trump profited from his private businesses both during his presidency and after he left office.)

    The Ohio senator also focused during the interview on his opposition to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, an isolationist policy view he shares with Mr. Trump. He had harsh words for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, accusing him of caring more about the war in Ukraine than about domestic problems in his own state.

    “You need to look in the mirror and accept that your job has been a failure,” Mr. Vance said. “You’ve been a failure at your job.”

    Ms. Noem highlighted her early endorsement of Mr. Trump in the 2024 contest, and said that she declined to run for president because she knew no one could beat Trump in a primary, prompting applause when she said, “He’s the only person who has the support to be the Republican nominee.” She also delivered a dark message that emulated the divisive rhetoric of Mr. Trump.

    “There are two kinds of people in this country right now. There are people who love America, and there are those who hate America,” she said.

    Ms. Lake did not appear on the main stage, instead participating on a panel hosted by the far-right television channel Real America’s Voice on the convention floor. She also echoed Mr. Trump’s isolationist views on aid to Ukraine, saying that the United States had to stop sending money overseas.

    Berney Flowers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel running for Congress in Maryland, listed Mr. Ramaswamy, Ms. Lake, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Tulsi Gabbard, a former member of Congress from Hawaii who left the Democratic Party to become a political independent, as possible contenders he would support.

    “We need the fire,” he said, though he added, “Any one of those people I would be happy to get behind.”

    The conference will conclude on Saturday with the group’s traditional straw poll. For the first time in at least a decade, the survey will include a question about vice-presidential preferences, asking attendees to pick the best running mate for Mr. Trump.

    It is a very different selection process from the one in 2016, when Mr. Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate just days before the Republican National Convention. At the time, Mr. Trump was still very much an outsider in the Republican Party and had to work to fend off attempts to derail his nomination and incite a contested convention. Going against his instincts, which would have favored a deferential running mate who would aggressively defend him against his many critics, Mr. Trump settled on Mr. Pence in an effort to unite the party.

    Now, Mr. Trump might as well be the Republican Party, and he is likely to favor the candidates who are most deferential to him even as he weighs factors such as whether a woman or a person of color could help win voters in the general election.

    Michael C. Bender contributed reporting.

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