WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Utah Republicans on Wednesday rallied around Mitt Romney, their party's former presidential nominee, a day after former senior White House aide Steve Bannon accused him of having used his Mormon religion to avoid military service.
Bannon's attack on Romney's character came in a fiery speech in Alabama where the former chief strategist for President Donald Trump was campaigning for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
"You avoided service, brother ... you hid behind your religion," Bannon said at the rally, adding that Romney's sons had also not served in the military and pointing to Moore's service during the Vietnam War.
The war of words was the latest episode highlighting the schism in the Republican party between establishment conservatives and the rise of Trump and his one-time strategist Bannon.
Romney, 70, a former governor of Massachusetts who later moved to Utah, has mulled a run for the seat of Utah Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, 83, who is deciding whether to retire.
Hatch was among Utah Republicans who came to Romney's defense.
"Bannon's attacks ... are disappointing and unjustified," said Hatch, a fellow Mormon like many in the state.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert, in a tweet, praised Romney and his family as honorable and said "Utahns reject the ugly politics and tactics of @SteveKBannon. #stayout."
"You can’t credibly call into question his patriotism or moral character—especially on the basis of his religious beliefs or his outstanding service as a missionary," U.S. Senator Mike Lee also said, calling Romney "a good man."
Romney, who lost the 2012 election to Democratic former president Barack Obama, has been a vocal critic of Trump as well as Bannon's politics. Trump has fired back and criticized Romney's failed presidential run.
Tensions between Trump and Romney have lingered even though Trump once considered him for secretary of state.
On Monday, Trump told reporters he wanted Hatch to seek re-election.
A day later, he called Romney, according to White House officials. "It was a good and positive conversation,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
A source close to Romney confirmed the conversation, describing it as "a courtesy call."
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Maria Caspani; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrew Hay)