Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is charging into the increasingly divisive White House race with a verbal lashing of Donald Trump and a plea for fellow Republicans to shun the front-runner for the good of country and party.
Romney is branding the billionaire businessman as “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” according to a speech Romney planned to give at the University of Utah on Thursday morning. The Associated Press obtained excerpts of his remarks in advance.
Trump, in turn, dismissed Romney as “a stiff” who “didn’t know what he was doing” as the party’s candidate in 2012 and blew a chance to beat President Barack Obama. “People are energized by what I’m saying” in the campaign and turning out in remarkable numbers to vote, Trump told NBC’s “Today.”
In ratcheting up the rhetoric, Romney cast his lot with a growing chorus of anxious Republican leaders — people many Trump supporters view as establishment figures — in trying to slow the New York real estate mogul’s momentum.
Indeed, there was a surge in turnout in Super Tuesday’s GOP primaries. While that could typically be a welcome sign for a party that has struggled to attract new voters in recent presidential elections, GOP leaders were privately grappling with the reality that some of those voters were in fact registering their opposition to the Republican establishment.
Trump padded his lead with victories in seven Super Tuesday contests, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz claiming three states and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio picking up his first victory of the 2016 race.
Despite Trump’s strong night, he was not yet on track to claim the nomination before the party’s national gathering in July, according to an Associated Press delegate count. He has won 46 percent of the delegates awarded so far, and he would have to increase that to 51 percent in the remaining primaries.
“Trump had a good night, but he left the door open,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
GOP strategists cast March 15 as the last opportunity to stop Trump through the normal path of winning states and collecting delegates. A win for Rubio in his home state of Florida would raise questions about Trump’s strength, as could a win for Ohio Gov. John Kasich on his home turf.
The candidates have a high-profile opportunity to make their case to voters in Thursday night’s prime-time debate. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson all but ended his bid Wednesday, saying he would skip the debate and declaring he did “not see a political path forward.”
The GOP mayhem contrasted sharply with a clearer picture on the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton was drawing broad support from voters and her party’s leaders. Rival Sen. Bernie Sanders vowed to keep up the fight, though his path to the nomination has become exceedingly narrow.
Republicans, meanwhile, looked for a wise man to calm the jitters and point the way.
Romney suggested he might try to fill that role. The former Massachusetts governor announced plans to speak on the “state of the 2016 presidential race” Thursday in Utah. Romney has moved aggressively to take on Trump in recent days, saying the billionaire’s unreleased tax returns might contain “bombshells.” But he was not expected to endorse a candidate or announce a late entry into the race himself.
The Associated Press has asked Republican governors and senators if they would support Trump if he becomes the party’s nominee. Of the 59 respondents, slightly fewer than half could not commit to backing him in November. A handful of officials, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, have said they would not support Trump in November, though it was unclear what alternatives they would have.
One long-shot idea rumbling through power corridors in Washington was the prospect of a late third-party candidate to represent more mainstream conservatives. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been approached by “a mixture of people” about being part of a third-party bid, according to Jeff Miller, who managed Perry’s failed GOP presidential campaign. But Miller said Perry found the idea “ludicrous.”
A more likely, though still extraordinarily unusual, scenario being discussed is a contested convention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that idea has the most support among those working for opponents’ campaigns. Others in the party express concern about the image of the GOP establishment using arcane rules to thwart the will of voters.
There’s also little consensus about the party’s goals in a contested convention, beyond stopping Trump.
“The goal is this: Let’s get to the convention in Cleveland and figure it out there,” said Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu.