Donald Trump will address a private gathering of prominent social conservatives later this month outside Washington, sources say, part of an ongoing attempt by the Republican front-runner to demonstrate his kinship with a key constituency in next year’s presidential nominating contest.
Trump will give the final speech at a “presidential candidate forum” the weekend of October 16-17 during a conference of the Council for National Policy, a secretive umbrella organization that brings together leaders and activists from across the conservative movement. The entire gathering, including the forum, is closed to the media. Only CNP’s membership, estimated at between 250 to 300, is allowed to attend.
Tony Perkins, the group’s president—who serves more visibly as president of the Family Research Council—will moderate a Q&A session on stage with each of the candidates individually following their allotted speaking time of 30 minutes. Trump will speak late in the afternoon Saturday, October 17—before a Catholic mass on site that evening and a Sunday worship service for members the next morning.
The CNP conference will be held at the Ritz-Carlson in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and according to a program obtained by National Journal, will feature speeches from five other candidates: Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Gilmore. Scott Walker was scheduled to speak until he unexpectedly quit the race last week.
The forum represents further opportunity for Trump to ingratiate himself with the evangelical world.
Since displacing Walker atop the Iowa polls in late July, the real-estate mogul has endeavored with varying success to demonstrate his connection with religious voters there and nationwide. Trump has taken to calling himself a Christian on the stump, though in July, he turned heads by referring to communion as “my little cracker.” He also has declined to cite a favorite Scripture verse. But last week, he brandished a Bible at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, and on Monday, Trump “met and prayed with about 40 religious leaders and pastors in his Trump Tower office,” according to the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The CNP gathering won’t focus strictly on social issues, however. Members of the organization represent all three “legs” of the conservative stool—social, fiscal, and national security—and have convened meetings with many of the presidential candidates over the past year in an attempt to determine whether there is a consensus choice for the conservative movement to rally behind in 2016.
This conference, in fact, will represent a second set of tryouts for Republican presidential hopefuls. CNP’s first candidate forum, back in May, featured another heat of six candidates addressing the organization: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina.
Cruz, according to many attendees, was the clear winner of that event. He was also the only candidate who addressed what they called “the elephant in the room”—the idea that prominent conservatives in attendance are hoping to identify one candidate to coalesce their movement behind, convinced that doing so represents their best and only chance of defeating the establishment in next year’s primary.
Cruz made a direct pitch for the movement’s support, and while it’s unclear if a mass-coordinated endorsement is imminent or even possible, many activist leaders are expected to announce their support for the Texas senator’s candidacy in the months ahead.
Although Trump continues to lead the polls on his strength with tea-party voters, he has not established relationships with influential activists at the national level. Because of that, he is highly unlikely to win support from the conservative movement’s leadership—people like Perkins, Ken Cuccinelli of the Senate Conservatives Fund, David McIntosh of the Club for Growth, and Becky Norton Dunlop, a Heritage Foundation vice president who chairs the Conservative Action Project.
Nonetheless, CNP organizers—who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the group’s off-the-record rules—say they’re eager to welcome Trump and examine his fluency on their pet issues.
Much of that examining will be done by Perkins during his Q&A period. When Perkins questioned candidates at the May event, he asked all of them to name a “movement conservative” who advises them or is part of their inner circle. Such a question could prove vexing for Trump, organizers say.
To that end, members are buzzing about another aspect of Trump’s appearance this month. As at previous meetings, presidential candidates are introduced on stage by a CNP member who vouches for their conservative bona fides. This has never been an issue for Trump’s rivals. But as of now, event organizers say they have no idea who will introduce the GOP front-runner.
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