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Ted Cruz Rouses Crowd At CPAC Conference

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference - known as CPAC - being held just outside Washington. Donald Trump was scheduled to speak today, but he dropped out at the last minute. Marco Rubio is now addressing the group. Joining us now in the studio is NPR's Sarah McCammon, who has been reporting from CPAC all this week. Sarah, hey.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Donald Trump was supposed be one of the featured speakers this morning. He's not there, as we mentioned. Is it still, though, all about Trump?

MCCAMMON: Well, there was a lot of chatter about that yesterday when I was at CPAC. People were threatening to walk out during his speech, so that may explain why he's not here. You know, he has some supporters in this crowd, but it's not really his crowd. For example, at one point during Ted Cruz's speech yesterday, some of the audience started chanting Trump, Trump, Trump, and they were very quickly drowned out by boos from the rest of the crowd. You know, Trump never wants to show a sign of weakness. And instead, he's trying to show that he's focused on being where people are voting soon. So he's in Kansas today where votes are being cast and holding a rally in Florida, which holds its key primary on the 15.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That, of course, is Marco Rubio's home state - Florida. There's a fierce battle for those 99 delegates. If Rubio doesn't win there, a lot of people are saying it could be the end of his campaign. What is Rubio trying to accomplish right now?

MCCAMMON: He's been going after Trump, but the attacks haven't really seemed to stick so far. You know, Rubio did pick up one win on Super Tuesday in Minnesota. Not clear where he wins today or where he wins next, and his campaign knows that Florida is a must-win. So Rubio, you know, is pitching himself as the alternative to Trump, but right now Ted Cruz is pointing out that he's won several more states than Rubio and is in second place with delegates.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the activists will render their judgment later today on who they want to be president in this election year. How predictive are the straw polls at this particular event?

MCCAMMON: Not that predictive; it's mixed even in election years. You know, five out of the last six CPAC straw polls have gone to somebody with the last name Paul. It's a pretty, you know, young, grassroots, libertarian-leaning crowd but not necessarily representative of the party. You know, Ted Cruz's speech stood out yesterday. He's very popular with this group and he got an enthusiastic response when he dismissed the idea of a brokered GOP convention, something he says the establishment is pushing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: They're really frustrated because all of their chosen candidates, all of the golden children, the voters keep rejecting.

(APPLAUSE)

CRUZ: And so they've seized on this master plan. We go to a brokered convention and the D.C. power brokers will drop someone in who is exactly...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, yeah, I mean, there we're hearing Ted Cruz and you're saying he might be the one that will win the straw poll today, but what about Ben Carson? He's also popular with conservatives and he dropped out, right?

MCCAMMON: Yep. He was well-received, but he is out of the race. The crowd gave him a standing ovation yesterday. He says now he's going to work on organizing evangelicals to register to vote and be more politically engaged. He told his supporters to make sure they vote but didn't say for who.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. OK, there's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you so much for being with us.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.