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National Harbor (United States) (AFP) - Twenty months before Americans vote on re-electing Donald Trump, conservative supporters are already slapping many of his progressive 2020 challengers with a resurgent political taint: socialism.
The word has been in heavy rotation since Democratic candidates began openly embracing liberal platforms including a sweeping plan to fight climate change, known as the Green New Deal, and expanding health care coverage.
"Socialism" circulated this week like a lurid rumor through the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the gathering of core conservatives that has become an annual fixture near Washington.
It was the overriding theme of a sleek but ominous five-minute video shown Thursday at CPAC, featuring biting attacks on the most famous democratic socialists in America: senator and repeat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and 29-year-old first-term congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Hot button issues like debt-free college, "once thought to be radical, appear to be the starting line in this Democratic primary," a narrator says as the word "socialism" flashes on the screen above images of unrest.
The video highlights the left-wing activism sweeping across some US campuses, and warns of the leftward lean of presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.
The alarm was not just on screen.
Vice President Mike Pence made the political pilgrimage to CPAC Friday to warn the faithful that Democrats are taking a "hard left turn" ahead of 2020.
"Under the guise of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and stifled the liberties of millions over the last century. That system is socialism," he said.
Voters must choose "between freedom and socialism, between personal responsibility and government dependence," Pence said in grave tones, as he highlighted the ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela under its socialist rule.
"This is the choice we face in the next 20 months," he added.
- 'Counter-attack' to socialism -
Amid the "Make America Great Again" caps and "Trump 2020" rhinestone pins, a button on many attendees' lapels reflected what may well become the next GOP campaign theme: "Socialism SUCKS."
Elaine Ervin, a Trump supporter from Tennessee, was wearing the button, in the baby blue color and font reminiscent of Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign.
"I think socialism is the platform that Democrats have put up, and the Republicans will counter-attack it," Ervin, 71, told AFP Friday.
CPAC has helped put the red scare front and center for Republicans, perhaps to a degree not seen since the era of Ronald Reagan, chief adversary of the Soviet Union.
Matt Schlapp, the activist who runs CPAC, expressed confidence that it is more than fair game to paint Trump challengers as radical leftists.
"I think it's very appropriate for conservatives to stand up against socialism, absolutely," Schlapp told AFP.
CPAC attendees agreed.
"Socialism is rising with millennials... so I am super worried about my generation," said 27-year-old Vish Burra, a conservative activist from New York.
"This fight doesn't stop at 2020, or 2024. This is something that's going to be generational."
But the video could also serve as a possible diversion to the discomfort facing Trump.
The investigation of the Trump team's possible collusion with Russia could wrap up soon, and his former lawyer Michael Cohen has implicated the president in illegal activity.
College student James Stevens, 20, doubts Cohen's explosive testimony before Congress this week will have much impact.
"Nothing that has challenged Trump before has actually brought him down," said Stevens, another "Socialism SUCKS" button wearer.
He said he would be thrilled if the progressive candidates kept moving leftward, a move that would help Trump -- but acknowledged establishment Democrats may well win out.
"They're looking for somebody to come in who has those more democratic views than socialist views, because socialism as a whole isn't really appealing to a lot of people," Steven said.
That candidate, he and others at CPAC fear, could be Joe Biden.
- 'Further left' -
The former vice president is widely believed to be preparing to jump into the crowded race.
As a moderate with impeccable credibility with the white working-class, he could be the non-socialist that Trump's conservatives fear most.
"He has that appeal," Burra acknowledged. "Midwestern working-class people won't really get the sense that Joe Biden is out to get them."
Former congressman Tim Huelskamp, who now heads the free-market think tank The Heartland Institute, said the 2020 race "absolutely" comes down to a capitalism-socialism battle.
"I hope they go even further left," Huelskamp said of Democrats. "We're going to beat them all."
CPAC went so far as to recruit outsider Nigel Farage, controversial founder of Britain's Brexit movement, to hammer the message home.
"Does socialism work?" the British politician teased the crowd, prompting raucous boos.
"Make the Democrats look like hard-left socialists, and you'll be in with a massive electoral college win."