National Harbor, Md. — Ben Sasse is fast emerging as one of Donald Trump’s most combative conservative opponents. But during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, the Nebraska Republican senator never mentioned his name. And his attacks on the GOP presidential front-runner were oblique at best.
After kicking off with a riff about that time “someone on Twitter” called him a “gym rat” — that someone was, of course, Trump – Sasse delved into a detailed speech on the importance of putting limited government and constitutionalism over political party. It was a speech designed to critique Trump’s message, if not his brand directly, and it was well-received by the conservative crowd.
The senator’s rhetoric sharpened ever-so-slightly as he concluded his speech with a few words about the 2016 field. “As you listen to presidential candidates over the next few days, you should be listening with the ears of grandmas and grandpas worried about your grandsons and granddaughters, and whether or not they will understand the American idea,” he told the crowd.
“I am anti-establishment,” Sasse later added, “but what we need most of all is not just someone who wants to breathe fire on Washington, but who wants to breathe passion into our children about a constitutional recovery. Because that’s how we will actually make America great again.”
Sasse’s decision to tiptoe around directly criticizing Trump seems to be the rule rather than the exception at CPAC, at least so far. Speaking earlier that morning, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said some conservatives were likely “confused, and dare I say, even some upset, by what’s happening in the presidential election.” And former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum noted the presidential race has conservatives “nervous as all heck about what they’re going to do.” Neither of them dared to speak Trump’s name.