NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND —
President Donald Trump has taken a firm hold on the U.S. conservative political movement and is pushing it in his own direction, one of his top advisers said Thursday.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the largest annual gathering of American conservatives, Kellyanne Conway said Trump had tapped into something that swung conservatives behind him even though he hasn't always aligned with their beliefs.
"He went right to the grass roots and brought you along," she said. "He made a lot of people feel like they were a part of the movement."
Conway said Trump earned the Republican party's presidential nomination in a "bottom up instead of top down" way, unlike a lot of politicians who have years of experience and name recognition.
WATCH: Conway on Trump's achievements
Trump was able to gain support from conservatives because they "felt like they had a seat at the table from the beginning," Conway said. "The idea that he’s there because he wants to be there, because he believes in this country, he believes in its people, he believes in its promise, is very liberating, and you see that when you’re with him," she said.
Trump's speech Friday will be the highlight of this year's conference, energized by Republican control of the White House and Congress for the first time in 10 years.
This year's gathering of thousands of conservatives is taking place at a Maryland hotel, just outside Washington, and it was controversial even before the gathering started.
Watch: Top White House Officials Praise Trump at CPAC
CPAC leader Matt Schlapp told VOA he saw "a little more of a populist strain" running through the event this year, with Trump serving as the driving force.
"I will agree that there is a little more of a populist strain to conservatives these days. I don't know if it's a change in philosophy, but I do know this, it's because they are so discouraged about what's been happening in Washington, D.C., over all these years," he said.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to address the conference Thursday night. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon will also participate in a panel discussion.
Not all have endorsed Trump's brand of conservatism, and his past appearances at CPAC have drawn mixed reactions. Many of his stated and past positions on issues put him at odds with conservative orthodoxy.
3 kinds of conservatives
But CPAC leader Schlapp told VOA that there was an "alive and vibrant" coalition made up of three kinds of conservatives: those who care about the culture, those who simply want less government and lower taxes, and others who say the country needs a strong defense.
Schlapp said all were discouraged about what has been happening in Washington in recent years. "They just feel like no matter how many elections they win, they lose ground, and government grows and taxes increase," he said.
While conservative Republicans gather in Maryland, opposition Democrats will meet in Atlanta to choose a new leader of the Democratic National Committee.
Former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez and U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota are the front-runners to lead the party, which is trying to pick up the pieces after November's election losses.
The moderate-voiced Perez has the backing of more mainstream Democrats, while the outspoken Ellison is supported by the more liberal elements of the party.
But all sides say the Democrats need a leader who can harness the anger and energy coming out of anti-Trump protests and put the party back in control of Congress in next year's midterm elections.