WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate would “greatly diminish” prospects for a safe and prosperous future for the United States, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in a stinging speech on Thursday.
Romney said the other Republican candidates would be better alternatives to the billionaire businessman, whom he called “a phony, a fraud.”
The race for the Republican nomination, dominated by insults and name-calling, has seen Trump’s once-unlikely candidacy morph into an increasingly strong bid for his party’s nomination for the November election.
“The only serious policy proposals that deal with the broad range of national challenges we confront today come from Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich,” Romney said of Trump’s rivals. “One of these men should be our nominee.”
Romney was relentless in his criticism, saying Trump “is not the temperament of a stable, thoughtful leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.”
Earlier Thursday, Trump dismissed Romney as “a stiff” who “didn’t know what he was doing” as the party’s candidate in 2012. “People are energized by what I’m saying” and turning out in remarkable numbers to vote, Trump told NBC.
The back-and-forth comes as Republican candidates prepared for the first post-Super Tuesday debate, scheduled for Thursday night.
Trump is coming under increasing pressure from his party as he fights for the majority of delegates needed to win the nomination.
Romney said a Trump nomination at the party’s convention in July would enable Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the presidency.
Romney also criticized Clinton, accusing her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of personally profiting from their positions of power.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the losing Republican nominee in 2008, issued a statement endorsing Romney’s remarks. Trump had dismissed McCain’s war-hero status for his long imprisonment during the Vietnam War.
Panicked Republican leaders say they still have options for preventing Trump from winning the nomination, just not many good ones. They include a contested convention and even the long-shot prospect of a third party option.
Also Thursday, dozens of conservative national security experts warned that Trump is unfit to be commander in chief.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and more than 70 others called Trump’s “embrace of the expansive use of torture” inexcusable. They also object to what they say is Trump’s “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric” and his advocacy for waging trade wars.
Despite Trump’s strong showing on Tuesday, he was not yet on track to claim the nomination before the party’s national gathering, 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 has 316 delegates so far, Texas Sen. Cruz 226 and Florida Sen. Rubio 106. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the party nomination.
Party 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 Kasich, Ohio’s governor, on his home turf.
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.”
On the Democratic side, Clinton was drawing broad support from voters and her party’s leaders. Rival Bernie Sanders vowed to keep up the fight, though his path to the nomination has narrowed. So far, Clinton has at least 1,005 delegates, Sanders 373. It takes 2,383 Democratic delegates to win.
Romney excoriated Trump in a deeply personal attack that exposed party panic at the billionaire’s political success.
Romney said his party’s front-runner “has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.”
Romney offered a litany of pejorative descriptions of Trump, saying he was greedy, dishonest, vulgar, reckless, bullying and misogynistic, with policies that would prompt a recession and spook allies.
His stem-winder is highly unusual in a party that long swore by Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
But Trump’s shock electoral success has provoked utter panic among the Republican establishment, who believe he will destroy the party if he wins the nomination.
Warning of “profound consequences for the Republican Party,” Romney said that “if we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”
It is far from clear that Romney’s intervention will stop Trump’s meteoric rise.
The real estate mogul has defied expectations in winning nine of the 15 state-wide primary contests held so far, garnering more than 3 million votes.
Using seemingly unlimited free media coverage, Trump has tapped into deeply felt grassroots anger at the party leadership.
Romney was quick to scotch suggestions he may use the speech to back a rival or throw his hat into the ring.
“I am not here to announce my candidacy for office,” he said. “I am not going to endorse a candidate today.”
Romney heavily lost the 2012 election to incumbent President Barack Obama, a point that Trump was keen to point out on Twitter.
“I am the only one who can beat Hillary Clinton. I am not a Mitt Romney, who doesn’t know how to win.” he wrote.
“Why did Mitt Romney BEG me for my endorsement four years ago?” he added.
Many believe Trump’s racially tinged rhetoric and unorthodox past will lead the party to electoral oblivion.
Members of Romney’s inner circle have been among Trump’s most vocal critics, openly urging all candidates to stay in the race and deny Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to win.
They hope that would prompt the party convention in July to consider another candidate.
That is a long shot, and there are increasing signs that some establishment Republicans are willing to back Trump.
Conservative New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently endorsed Trump, and a trickle of party strategists have argued it’s time to coalesce behind and train fire on likely Democratic nominee, Clinton.
Trump has recently moved to fuel that trend, making the case he can unify and grow the party.
“I think we’ll be more inclusive and more unified. I think we’ll be a much bigger party. I think we’re going to win in November,” Trump said in Florida after victories on Super Tuesday.
If Romney wanted to ignite a debate about the suitability of Donald Trump for the White House, he succeeded, at least on social media.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee lambasted Trump in a speech on Thursday in Salt Lake City, calling him “a phony, a fraud” and saying that it is his “very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.”
The speech by the former Massachusetts governor was the latest illustration of how badly many mainstream Republican leaders want to stop Trump, currently the clear front-runner, from becoming his party’s nominee in November’s election to succeed Obama.
Twitter users were posting about Romney roughly 38 times per second following the speech, according to social media analytics firm Zoomph.
Romney’s sentiment score, a measure of how positively users are discussing a topic, was slightly higher than Trump’s following the speech, according to Zoomph.
“Mitt Romney” quickly became one of the top-trending topics on Twitter in the United States. As of 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT), there were a total of 153,000 tweets about Romney on Twitter, according to the social media site’s own metrics.
Trump did not immediately respond on Twitter, although shortly before Romney’s speech he had tweeted that he was en route to a campaign event in Maine. His social media director, Dan Scavino, went promptly on the offensive.
“Why do voters hate politicians??” Scavino (@DanScavino) tweeted. “Just watch Mitt Romney today. #Trump2016 #TrumpTrain”
In his speech criticizing both Trump’s policy proposals and his style, Romney did not endorse any of the other candidates remaining in the Republican race.
But one of those candidates, Ohio Gov. candidate John Kasich (@JohnKasich), tweeted his support for Romney, saying “Well said, @MittRomney.”
A photo of the presidential Oval Office accompanied the tweet, with the caption “The One Who Works Here Should Make Us Proud.”
Other presidential candidates remained quiet on Twitter, but Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley offered her support for Romney.
“A brilliant speech by @MittRomney. No one can ever question his love for our party and our country. #TrueLeadership #MittRomney,” Haley (@nikkihaley) tweeted.
Haley has endorsed Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, for the Republican Party nomination.
Michelle Malkin, a conservative political commentator, said she was unimpressed with Romney’s comments.
“If only Romney talked like this four years ago about Obama … or Trump,” Malkin (@michellemalkin) tweeted. “Too freaking late and too freaking lame.”