Thousands of the nation's most engaged conservative activists and supporters gathered near Washington, DC this week to meet some of the top Republican thinkers and campaign gurus, and to hear from the party's presidential candidates.
This should be Donald Trump territory, and not just in the sense that every part of the country now appears to be Trump's domain. The attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are the progenitors of the Tea Party movement. They're an anti-establishment bunch that booed any mention of Mitt Romney this week. They also jeered their own party's chairman, Reince Priebus, who struggled to defend the possibility of a brokered convention to an angry crowd on Friday, while insisting that such a scenario is very unlikely.
CPAC attendees tend to be active conservatives that consistently show up to vote, and many of them are under 30. Over four days filled with conservative speakers and happy hours, they covered themselves head-to-toe in campaign stickers and pins, red elephant print skirts, and American flag suits. And, as they do every year, they engaged in deep conversations about how to get their party to listen and to change.
And yet one thing was overwhelmingly clear: This group hates Trump.
For all the talk of the GOP establishment's fight to prevent Trump from becoming the party's presidential nominee, these conservatives — who live to fight the establishment — aren't siding with Trump either. After a few days at CPAC, it's clear that Trump's candle is burning at both ends within the Republican party.
Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump's rivals for the nomination, gave standing-room-only speeches here on Friday and Saturday. They both received huge rounds of applause for their knocks on Trump, whom they portrayed as a non-conservative whose language is harming the party.
Though Rubio never mentioned Trump by name during his speech, he earned one of the longest standing ovations and loudest cheers of the week came when he said that young people could become the next "Greatest Generation" — a term for the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during World War II — but "they won't have a chance if the Conservative movement is hijacked by someone who is not a conservative."
During a Q&A afterward with CNN's Dana Bash, Rubio said the Trump's tone was a major concern for him as the father of four young children. "I don't want us to have a president that we constantly have to be explaining to our kids, look, I know that's what the president did, but you shouldn't do that," he said.
Trump, the Republican frontrunner and perhaps the only candidate with any chance of earning the party's nomination the old-fashioned way before the convention in July, was scheduled to speak at the conference on Saturday morning. But with a largely hostile crowd awaiting him, he abruptly cancelled, infuriating organizers and attendees alike. Instead, he spent the day campaigning in Kansas ahead of the state's caucuses on Saturday night.
When all was said and done, Trump came in third in the CPAC straw poll, which was conducted over the four-day convention, taking just 15 percent of the vote. Cruz won the poll of attendees with 40 percent, while Rubio took second place with 30 percent. CPAC's straw poll is a strong indicator of where the Tea Party's loyalties lie in any given election, but it hasn't been very predictive of who will win the actual GOP nomination. In recent years it has been dominated by young libertarians and Paul family superfans. Senator Rand Paul, who ended his presidential campaign last month, won the straw poll in each of the last three years.
Kelly Palmer, a retiree from West Virginia who has been to CPAC for the last five years, said he was considering not coming back to the conference after hearing the candidates, speakers, and attendees ruthlessly attack Trump. Palmer said he regretted that Trump skipped the conference — particularly after a friend who volunteers for Trump's campaign paid $150 for a single-day ticket just to see him in person — but he wasn't surprised after seeing how aggressively anti-Trump CPAC has become.
William Temple, who dresses up like a Revolutionary War soldier and is a constant presence at Republican and Tea Party events around the DC area, said he was organizing a walkout of 300 CPAC attendees from Trump's speech Saturday morning. But he never got the chance to put that plan into action. Temple, like many others at CPAC, is a Cruz supporter.
The CPAC crowd is used to fighting against the establishment, but they now find themselves fighting the party's main anti-establishment candidate alongside Cruz and Rubio, who found early support here when they ran underdog, anti-establishment races for the US Senate.
Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mary Beth Martin slammed Trump in a well-received speech here this week, saying, "Donald Trump has no business thinking he is Tea Party."
With enemies on both sides, CPAC attendees still found ways to blow off steam in between the speeches and breakout sessions that offered instruction on how to make viral political videos, defeat the "vast left-wing conspiracy," and defend their religious freedom, a lesson delivered during a panel called "My Bible, My Choice." They drank heavily during Thursday night's Republican debate, and they danced with cardboard cutouts of the presidential candidates to Usher's "Yeah!," Soulja Boy's "Crank That," and other hits from the last decade.
On Saturday afternoon, attendees left the annual confab and headed back to their home states reinvigorated to fight for conservative values. Meanwhile Trump spoke in Kansas, just hours before results begin to roll in from the five states that are voting today. Trump leads in almost all of them.
Follow Sarah Mimms on Twitter: @SarahMMimms.