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Donald Trump has run an unapologetically coarse, give-the-elites-the-finger presidential campaign, ruthlessly mocking his rivals, attacking Latinos and Muslims, trampling long-held conservative ideas and bluntly dismissing the Republican establishment. The tinsel-haired showman has promised delighted supporters that he will take on the politicians who have betrayed them and lead Americans to victory over the global forces that have crushed their hopes of living the American dream.
On Thursday, twice-failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney — the living, breathing, immaculately coiffed human embodiment of the same Republican establishment that Trump publicly reviles and of the economic currents that he exploits but claims to despise — tried to convince the reality star’s supporters that they are “suckers” being taken in by a dangerous con man.
“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” the millionaire investor told a friendly audience at the Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City. “He’s playing the American people for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Romney, who was referring to the red baseball caps bearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, did not endorse any individual Republican candidate for president in 2016 and sharply attacked Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton as unfit for office. The result was a campaign-style speech that the former Massachusetts governor might have given had he run.
It was a litany of attacks, personal and policy-based, reaching as far back as the failure of vanity projects like Trump Vodka and as close as Trump’s ugly tangle with Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly.
Romney notably led an all-out attack on what is arguably Trump’s biggest strength: his reputation as a savvy and hugely successful businessman. But what about Trump Airlines? Trump University? Trump Mortgage? Trump Vodka?
“A business genius, he is not,” the former Massachusetts governor said.
And Romney previewed what strategists in both parties have suggested could be the best line of attack against Trump: that his missteps cost others dearly.
“His bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who worked for them,” he said.
Romney repeatedly returned to sharp assaults on Trump’s temperament and his judgment.
“Donald Trump says he admires Vladimir Putin; at the same time, he’s called George W. Bush a liar,” Romney said. “That is a twisted example of evil trumping good.”
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticizes current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and the state of the 2016 campaign during a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Romney’s broadside came as part of an escalating and increasingly desperate-feeling GOP establishment attack on Trump, whose Super Tuesday romp left him the party’s 2016 frontrunner. The effort includes ramped-up efforts by the anti-Trump Our Principles super-PAC.
It’s not clear whether any of this will work. It’s late in the cycle. Trump voters seem to regard even accurate media coverage as an illegitimate attack on their guy. And his opponents have yet to catch fire with Republican primary voters or do much to take down Trump, who has also shrugged off campaign trail criticisms from former President George W. Bush. Meanwhile, in Washington, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has scolded Trump for failing to denounce the KKK sufficiently loudly — and drew a threat in response.
“Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, OK?” Trump said at his Super Tuesday night press conference.
Romney’s attacks were awkward in part because he courted, and secured, Trump’s endorsement in 2012 — after the brash-talking New Yorker made himself the standard-bearer for racist-tinged “birther” claims that President Obama was ineligible for the White House.
Still, Romney assailed Trump’s calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States as well as his regular blasts against Latino immigrants.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign stop in Portland, Maine, on Thursday. (Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Clearly stung by Romney’s jabs, Trump used an extended section of his speech at a rally in Maine Thursday to hit back, calling him “a failed candidate” and a “lightweight” who should have beaten Obama in 2012.
“He was begging for my endorsement,” Trump told the adoring crowd. “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees. He was begging.”
Romney had also argued that it’s not too late to derail the Trump train. And he even proposed a strategy in which Republican voters should cast their ballots for whichever of Trump’s rivals seems most likely to beat him in a given state — an effort to deny him the majority of delegates. That could lead to a brokered nominating convention with an uncertain outcome.
In a recent Yahoo News interview, Romney’s top 2012 strategist, Stuart Stevens, suggested that the clash with Trump was far from preordained.
“Donald Trump had a choice in the very beginning: to become a serious candidate for president or to run as kind of a Jesse Ventura candidate,” Stevens said, referring to the blunt-speaking former professional wrestler and action movie actor who starred in “Predator” and later became governor of Minnesota.
“Had he become a serious candidate for president, he would have taken the time and done the work to study policy and really learned a lot. He, in Iowa, would have been meeting with business people, small-biz people, asking their ideas,” Stevens continued. “He would have been meeting with teachers and students and parents and talking about education. He would have been doing these things that candidates that want to succeed and are serious do.”
But “instead, what he’s done is what he enjoys. He’s at a point in his life where he doesn’t do anything he doesn’t enjoy,” the consultant said. “What does he enjoy? He likes having these big rallies and going out and ranting for an hour. That’s fine — it just has very little correlation to what you need to do to get elected president.”