Mitt Romney, one of the most prominent members of an increasingly panicked Republican establishment, just dove headfirst into the fray of the 2016 primary election with a scorching takedown of Donald Trump on Thursday morning.
Romney called Trump "a phony" and "a fraud" who is "playing the American public for suckers," in his highly-anticipated speech from the University of Utah on Thursday. "[Trump's] promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University."
Romney lambasted Trump on everything from his plan to defeat the Islamic State — "the most ridiculous and dangerous idea of this entire campaign season" — to Trump's personality, which he said disqualified him to be president.
"His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe," Romney said. "He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill."
Trump's praise of Russian president Vladimir Putin and criticism of former US president George W. Bush "is a twisted example of evil trumping good," said Romney, which provoked cheers from the audience.
Romney's onslaught against Trump was notable in its breadth, especially since he was calling out the frontrunner of his own party in such a searing and public way, but his critique did not come altogether as a surprise. The speech was widely expected to be a last-ditch effort to stop Trump from taking over the GOP, as it looks increasingly likely that the reality television star will become the Republican presidential nominee after his impressive showing on Super Tuesday. In recent days, Romney had become a vocal critic of Trump over his refusal to release his tax returns and disavow white supremacists who endorsed him.
Romney also suggested an interesting strategy to voters who wish to stop Trump's progression: not to back their favored candidate, but whichever Trump opponent seemed most likely to win their state. He urged voters in Florida to vote for Sen. Marco Rubio and those in Ohio to vote for Gov. John Kasich, for example, in order to winnow down Trump's list of state victories in the coming contests.
Romney's speech telling the Republican Party — and Trump — how to operate in this presidential election carries a degree of irony as Romney has lost the last two presidential elections, first in the GOP primary in 2008, and then in 2012 as the party's nominee against President Obama. What's more, Romney actively pursued, and got, Trump's endorsement in 2012. "Mitt is tough, he's sharp, he's smart," Trump said then.
But the tables have turned now. Never one to take perceived insults lying down, Trump took to Twitter to unleash on Romney, even before he delivered his speech.
Why did Mitt Romney BEG me for my endorsement four years ago?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)March 3, 2016
Just another desperate move by the man who should have easily beaten Barrack Obama. (2/2)
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)March 2, 2016
Rubio has sought Romney's endorsement in recent weeks, as he has had difficulty gaining traction in the presidential race against Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. But Romney made no endorsements on Thursday, praising Rubio as well as Cruz and Kasich for putting out "the only serious policy proposals that deal with the broad range of national challenges we confront."
Romney's searing condemnation of Trump was not welcomed by all of his fellow Republicans. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who ended his 2016 presidential bid after a disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses, criticized Republican politicians for "focusing on who they are against" rather than who they're for. Santorum, himself, endorsed Rubio and has been talking about his support for the senator at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major Republican political confab held near Washington this week.
"Look, Mitt Romney can go and weigh in and let his opinion [be] known about any of the candidates. He certainly let his opinions be known about me when I was running [in 2012]," Santorum said laughing. "I didn't see all of his speech, but I heard some of it. He said a lot worse things about me than he did about Trump."
More broadly, Santorum added: "As someone who wants to see Marco Rubio win, I don't think having a bunch of people going out there and talking about their being against someone else, particularly if they're the outsider candidate, does anything but help the outsider candidate."
Meanwhile, Trump supporters at CPAC were disappointed, but not surprised, by Romney's speech Thursday. Although attendees were in the midst of attending panels with conservative politicians and getting to know like-minded activists when Romney actually spoke, word spread quickly through this social-media-heavy conference that the former presidential candidate had called their hero a "phony" and tried, as so many establishment Republicans have this cycle, to bring him down.
Decked out in a "Make America Great Again" hat and a rhinestone "TRUMP" pin on her shirt, 20-year Air Force veteran Connie Smith said that Romney's reasoning for trying to take down Trump had a lot more to do with his personal interests than concern for her party.
"He has an offshore account in the Cayman Islands. He's on the gravy train," she said of Romney. "He's threatened, he doesn't want his gravy train interrupted. None of them do."
Michael Najvar, of Gonzales, Texas, who was also wearing a "Make America Great Again" trucker hat around CPAC this afternoon, said that he supported Romney in 2012, but that he now thinks the former governor has turned his back on conservatives.
"The establishment has tried to knock Trump down time after time, after time, after time. The people are fed up. They remember Romney was leading four years ago after the first debate and at the second debate he just tossed his cards in and said 'I give up'. People remember that," Najvar said.
"He doesn't care because he's part of the establishment, he's got lots of money, he'll be fine," Najvar added. "It's us poor people, the middle class, that's disappearing."
Romney served for four years as governor in Massachusetts, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump earlier this week, giving him just under 50 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday.
VICE News' Sarah Mimms contributed reporting to this article.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928