Former US president Donald Trump promised to “finish what we started” in another term, even if he is indicted and despite polls showing many Republican voters want an alternative, at a high-profile gathering of party members and supporters on Saturday.
Mr Trump's speech to close the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbour, Maryland, was his biggest public appearance since announcing his third White House bid in November.
“We are going to finish what we started,” he said to an enthusiastic crowd in a ballroom that was about two-thirds full.
“We’re going to complete the mission, we’re to going see this battle through to ultimate victory. We’re going to make America great again.”
The former president is facing multiple investigations, including for his handling of classified documents and his role in the January 6 Capitol riot, but he told reporters before the speech “absolutely I wouldn’t even think about leaving” the race if he is indicted.
Before Mr Trump took to the stage, it was revealed that he had won the convention's straw poll of potential Republican leaders with 62 per cent of the vote — with Ron DeSantis, the Republic Governor of Florida, a distant second at 20 per cent.
Mr Trump did not draw direct contrasts with Mr DeSantis and other rivals in his speech, instead emphasising the achievements of his first term and promising to fight for his aggrieved supporters if voters put him back in the White House.
"In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution," he told the gathering.
"I will totally obliterate the deep state. I will fire the unelected bureaucrats and shadow forces who have weaponised our justice system. And I will put the people back in charge of this country again."
Mr Trump was the biggest draw at the conference. Mr DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence skipped it, while the only other declared or potential candidates who spoke at the four-day event were former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and businessmen Perry Johnson and Vivek Ramaswamy.
Ms Haley got a warm welcome from the CPAC crowd but mostly polite applause throughout her speech, and she was heckled by chants of “we love Trump” after exiting. She made no direct contrasts with Mr Trump, focusing instead on President Joe Biden, “socialist Democrats” and the threat from China.
Mr Pompeo also avoided mentioning his former boss, besides criticising the $8 trillion added to US debt during the Trump administration. He took some veiled jabs at the former president, including saying, “We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality".
In his speech, Mr Trump recited the “witch hunt” investigations he faces and his familiar grievances and false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. He said the first reconciliation bill he would sign if elected would be “a massive increase” in the border patrol and number of immigration agents.
He also touched on many of the policy proposals he has outlined in campaign videos in recent weeks, including plans to “protect children from left-wing insanity”, to “stop the America last warmongers and globalists” and “a new trade plan to protect American workers” that calls for ending imports of essential goods from China over four years and stopping US companies from investing there.
He also highlighted a plan released on Friday touting “a quantum leap in the American standard of living” that calls for using federal land to build up to 10 new “freedom cities” and to ensure that the US leads in the development of flying vehicles.
CPAC was until recently the premier gathering of conservative thought leaders in America, but it has become dominated by Mr Trump's far-right "Make America Great Again" movement, with pundits referring to the event lately as "MAGApalooza".
With reporting from agencies