SALT LAKE CITY — Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has a new role in the 2016 race for the White House: leading out in the fight against his party's controversial front-runner, Donald Trump.
Romney's surprise push last week for the billionaire business mogul and reality TV star to release his tax returns, along with his prediction they'd contain a "bombshell," predictably prompted a deluge of insults from Trump.
"Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope!" read one of Trump's many critical posts on Twitter. Another tweet accused Romney of "playing tough guy."
Some labeled Romney's comments ironic, since he was pressured to release his own tax returns in 2012 after then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested Romney, a wealthy businessman himself, hadn't paid any taxes for a decade.
But the issue has stuck and came up during the raucous Republican presidential candidate debate Thursday that saw Florida Sen. Marco Rubio attack Trump again and again on a number of issues, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also landing some blows.
Trump is being targeted as he is poised to become the presumptive nominee after next Tuesday's votes in a dozen states. Trump has already won some 60 percent of the delegates allocated in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
The concern for the GOP is that Trump won't fare as well against the Democratic nominee in the November general election, particularly if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wins over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"I think the (Republican) establishment is going berserk," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who supports Rubio. "They're saying, 'This is the president of the United States. This is not a freakin' episode of "The Apprentice."' They're trying."
But Weiler said it's not clear how much impact Romney or anyone else seen as part of the GOP establishment can have on voters who support Trump "because he's entertaining, and they can't wait to see what he does in the White House."
As a result, Trump isn't affected by criticism the same way other candidates would be, he said, instead seen as "a bad boy. And he's a billionaire, so he doesn't think normal rules apply and a lot of people seem to agree with him."
One of four state lawmakers who announced their support for Trump last week, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, wasn't worried about Romney or anyone else slowing Trump's momentum.
"There are always bombshells. I think that we're still a long way from getting the vetting done. But right now, I think he's very probably going to be the nominee," Van Tassell said. "I think people are energized by an outsider."
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans, who in the past has called Trump "off-putting," said it's up to voters, not the party establishment, to choose the nominee for the November election.
And voters, he said, are angry.
"One thing we must recognize is there is a significant number of voters who are tired of business as usual. A candidate who wants to beat Trump, if they cannot tap into that segment of voters, I don't think they're going to be successful," Evans said.
But Romney's statements also carry weight, he said.
"I think people are saying, 'If Gov. Romney is saying this, there must be something there,'" Evans said, including Rubio and Cruz, who are Trump's closest competitors. "I think that's going to be an issue for Donald Trump if he doesn't release his taxes."
Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers, former head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Romney may have spurred Rubio to stand up to Trump at the debate, and continue to go after him on the campaign trail.
"It was the first time you saw Rubio really fight, and I thought it was really effective," Jowers said. "I think Mitt is just really taking it upon himself as the party statesman to make sure all of our Republican candidates are fighting on a level field."
Still, Jowers said, it remains to be seen if the back-and-forth has hurt Trump.
Romney has yet to endorse in the 2016 race, and there has long been speculation he could emerge as a candidate if there is not a clear nominee before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in late July.
A headline in the Washington, D.C., political news source "The Hill" after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement of Trump on Friday read, "Did Christie just spark 'draft Romney' move?"
"Romney clearly possesses presidential stature, the capacity to self-finance a national campaign almost immediately and the capacity to raise enormous campaign money from large donors within days," The Hill article stated.
And last week, NBC's political director and host of "Meet the Press," Chuck Todd, outlined what he called a "farfetched" scenario that had Romney jumping into the June 7 California primary at the last minute to upset Trump.
"This is a scenario someone outlined to me a couple days ago. Mitt Romney would file late, you may get favorite sons and daughters to file late, simply to try to beat Trump, deny him delegates and create another way for a brokered convention," Todd said on NBC's "Today" show.
Romney has repeatedly declared no interest in a third run for the White House, and Jowers said he doesn't believe the now-Utah resident is positioning himself to get in to the race at some point.
"Romney knows the impact of the perception of people's finances," Jowers said. "And now that the real voting is about to start and the candidates really could be decided in the next couple of weeks, we have to make sure the nominee, whoever he is, won't lose even before he gets started."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Republicans would probably not look to the candidate who lost the presidency in 2012 should there be a contested convention.
"I think Romney would be one of the voices trying to bring some sense of order and sanity to the situation," Karpowitz said. "But would he be the one figure unifying the party? My guess is he would struggle with that."
Instead, he said, the party would likely turn to "someone who is already a candidate or someone like Paul Ryan," now the U.S. House speaker and Romney's vice-presidential pick in 2012.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle also saw little chance of Republicans considering Romney again. If Romney were to be seen as a candidate, Hagle said it would just further split the party's factions.
"I don't think people would go for Mitt Romney unless it was a real mess," he said.
Hagle said one of the biggest issues GOP voters had with Romney last time was what they saw as his unwillingness to take on President Barack Obama in the campaign.
"Maybe he's learned his lesson," Hagle said.
Some Utah political leaders aren't worried at all about Trump's impact on the Republican Party.
"I've enjoyed his campaign," Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, a Rubio supporter, said of Trump. "I think he's tapped into some of the fatigue people have had of the prepackaged message and focus group approaches to campaigns."
And even though Utah voters have put Trump in fourth place behind "Don't Know" in recent polls, Hughes said he believes Republicans everywhere could get behind Trump if he becomes the nominee.
"I tell you, it is captivating to see someone who is the 'un-candidate,'" the Utah speaker said. "Just someone who does not play by the rules of campaigns and elections in any way."
Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Trump's "crude and rude" campaign is "culturally very foreign to us in Utah." Trump has been criticized for statements about religions, minorities and women, as well as his use of profanity.
King joked he is heading up a "Dems for Donald" movement in Utah.
"I think of all the Republican candidates, Trump would probably be the one from my perspective that would be the hardest to sell in Utah," he said. "I think it will have a significant impact for the good of Democrats."
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