Now it's the establishment that wants to blow up the Republican Party.
The face of the GOP's elite, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, led the latest and most desperate attack yet aimed at dislodging the 2016 nomination from front-runner Donald Trump, articulating a strategy Thursday that would force party leaders to choose a nominee at the summer convention.
The Hail Mary pass would abandon their old plan — a failed attempt to coalesce around a single anti-Trump candidate — in favor of a new tactic that would involve keeping each of his three remaining competitors alive in hopes of preventing Trump from obtaining a majority of convention delegates needed to secure the nomination.
The strategy, noted in Romney's speech detailing each of Trump's perceived faults and lacing into him as a "phony" and "fraud," marked another unprecedented turn in a campaign full of them. In this case, the attempt from the party's 2012 standard-bearer to disqualify its 2016 front-runner came just two days after the most consequential day in the primary season, Super Tuesday, when nearly 3 million voters around the country cast ballots for Trump.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 presidential nominee, signed onto Romney's attack, saying in a news release that Trump is uninformed and dangerous. And former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to lead the country's largest state, appeared close to following up with an endorsement of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, announcing he would appear at a rally with him Sunday.
Romney ripped into Trump, his fellow Republican and onetime ally, with a kind of gusto he rarely displayed when confronting President Obama four years ago.
"If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished," Romney said at the University of Utah. "His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president."
The establishment plan would encourage anti-Trump voters to pick their strongest alternative on a state-by-state basis, choosing Sen. Marco Rubio in his home state of Florida, for example, and Kasich in Ohio. If those two candidates, along with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, each brings a sizable slate of delegates to the nominating convention, they can deprive Trump of enough votes to win a majority on the first ballot.
In that case, delegates would be released to pick any candidate, allowing them to build new coalitions — or even choose a compromise candidate like Romney.
The establishment's anti-Trump strategy is indeed high-risk, putting a harsh spotlight on the party's once-in-a generation fissures. The best-case scenario would cast aside Trump, and by doing so alienate at least a third of GOP voters already fed up with party elites and suspicious of exactly such smoke-filled-room schemes. Other losing candidates in a contested convention might also bolt, further fracturing the party.
And if party elites lose their gamble, they could leave Trump a hobbled general-election candidate and perhaps set off another round of defections from party loyalists whose harsh words against Trump cannot be unsaid.
"Trump played by the rules and he's on the cusp of winning this nomination," said Craig Robinson, founder of the influential Iowa Republican blog, who has not endorsed a candidate. "If you can prevent him getting the delegates needed, that's one thing. But anything beyond that, I think, is really dangerous.
"It's basically saying there are elites in the party that will tell us which candidates are acceptable, and which are not, and their opinion trumps the will of the people," he added.
Romney's influence among the rank and file is uncertain. Trump has thrived amid previous attacks from the establishment and was already using Romney's salvo to his advantage.
During a rally in Maine, Trump mocked Romney's attempt to win his endorsement in 2012, which he gave.
"I could have said, 'Mitt, drop to your knees,'" Trump said. "And he would have."
Trump then followed up on a series of Twitter insults he lobbed at Romney's failed 2012 campaign, accusing him of being a feckless stiff who let down the party in an election that Republicans were primed to win. The crowd loved it.
Romney appears to be trying to sway the group of Republicans not committed to Trump, who increasingly say in polls that they might be satisfied with Trump as the nominee.
He and other mainstream party leaders say the circumstances this time are extraordinary — citing Trump's sharp departures from long-held conservative policies and coarse rhetoric that is hurting the party's efforts to look more inclusive.
Even as Trump was locking up victories in seven Super Tuesday states this week, some of the wealthiest GOP donors gathered via conference call to discuss an anti-Trump super PAC, first reported by the New York Times.
"What we have is a lot of groups coming together saying, 'We have to stop Donald Trump; that has to be priority one,'" said Katie Packer, who is running the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, which was the focus of the call. "For the first time in the campaign, there's an aggressive concerted effort going after Trump and the basic premise of his candidacy."
Top Republican advisors concede that the effort would have had a greater likelihood of success had it started sooner. Packer said donors would not put money into the effort in the fall because they could not imagine the current scenario taking hold.
"People's perceptions on Donald Trump have been shaped pretty much by Donald Trump over the last eight months. Now, in the space of a few weeks, we're trying to reverse that. That is a significant challenge," said GOP operative Kevin Madden.
But Madden and others are casting their long-shot fight in historic terms.
GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, who was backing Jeb Bush and is now a bundler for Rubio, noted that Trump won three states on Tuesday by less than 3 percentage points, arguing that a few million dollars spent on anti-Trump television ads may have made a difference.
That argument assumes forces aligned against Trump could target just the right states, and ignores the breadth of his successes in contests across the country.
Packer's group has spent nearly $4.4 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. About $2 million was spent in Iowa on a multifaceted effort focused on his business record and the notion that he is not a true conservative. Packer said the group launched two seven-figure ad buys in the last week. Florida is the main focus, but the group is also running ads on national cable TV and in Illinois and may also advertise in North Carolina and Michigan, all states with primaries in the next two weeks.
Another group, American Future Fund, a conservative nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors, is spending more than $1.7 million in Florida airing ads accusing Trump University of scamming its students. The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group and a bundler for several of Trump's presidential rivals, announced Wednesday that it is spending $1.5 million on television and digital ads in Florida questioning Trump's business record.
But even as the anti-Trump groups try to stop the tide, many Republicans are moving to Trump's corner, and issuing their own warnings.
"If people don't believe in democracy, they should come out and say that," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former presidential candidate now backing Trump, said during a news conference. "But the fact is, we've had 15 contests and Donald Trump has won 10 of them. The people of the Republican Party who vote in primaries have the right to pick the nominee."
He scoffed at efforts to choose a nominee at the convention.
"You want to see the party break up? That's when you'll see the party have a big problem."
Bierman reported from Washington and Mehta from Los Angeles. Times staff researcher Maloy Moore and staff writers Joseph Tanfani, Evan Halper and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.
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