Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, campaigning in Utah, called Donald Trump's attacks on Mitt Romney Mormon affiliation "sad" and "disgraceful.''
"It was sad yesterday to see Donald Trump stand up in Utah and call into question Mitt Romney's faith," the Texas senator told reporters on Saturday after a rally in Draper ahead of the state's Republican nominating contest on March 22.
"That has no place in politics; that is wrong. It's disgraceful to call into question the faith of another, and that is an attack that I think doesn't belong in Utah and it doesn't belong in politics," Cruz said.
Trump jabbed at Romney late on Friday at Salt Lake City’s Infinity Event Center, less than two miles from the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the city's Temple Square.
"I have many friends that live in Salt Lake," the Republican front-runner told the crowd. "By the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them."
"Are you sure he’s a Mormon?" Trump asked the crowd. "Are we sure?"
The swipe came hours after the former Massachusetts governor declared he would vote for Cruz in the Utah contest, and urged other Republicans to follow suit. "I will vote for Senator Cruz and I encourage others to do so as well, so that we can have an open convention and nominate a Republican," Romney wrote on Facebook on Friday afternoon.
Cruz is waging an uphill battle to wrest control of the Republican nomination contest following a string of Trump victories in states Cruz had counted on winning. He welcomed the support from Romney, who won 73 percent of the vote in Utah against Barack Obama in 2012.
"In my book, when someone says I’m voting for you and encourages everyone else to vote for you, that’s pretty darn good and I’ll take that and take that happily,'' Cruz said of Romney's backing.
On Saturday Cruz rallied in front of about 1,000 people in a small community outside of Salt Lake City. Also on hand were media personality Glenn Beck and Carly Fiorina, the HP chief executive who departed the Republican race last month, plus Utah Senator Mike Lee, appearing before his home-state crowd while running for re-election.
Beck spoke to the crowd of his Mormon faith, and several speakers mentioned the need for a "Philadelphia Moment," a reference to the tenuous first days of the republic when the founding fathers rallied in the city to save the nation in its infancy.
Romney and Trump have been feuding since March 3, when Romney made a passionate call for Republicans to oppose the former "Apprentice" host by voting for any of his opponents. Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, also stumped for Ohio Governor John Kasich, in recent days, and backed him in robocalls to voters in a bid to block Trump’s ascent.
Questioning Romney’s religion carried echoes of Trump suggesting that Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother, is ineligible for the White House. In February, Trump said on Twitter that he may sue Cruz “for not being a natural born citizen.” The real estate magnate also challenged Barack Obama’s citizenship in 2011, fueling the “birther” movement against the U.S. president.
At Friday’s rally Trump belittled Romney’s losing 2012 run. "Did he choke? Did this guy choke? He’s a choke artist," Trump said. "He choked. He choked. It was so bad. He should have beaten Obama."
Trump has two remaining foes in a field winnowed down from over a dozen: Cruz, who trails Trump by 265 delegates, and Kasich, who won his home state on Tuesday but only has 143 delegates so far.
Trump has 678 delegates. If he doesn’t gather at least 1,237 by the Republican convention in Cleveland in July, it would be possible for delegates to hand the nomination to someone else through a series of votes.
Using the same logic, Senator Lindsey Graham also backed Cruz this week after spending much of the campaign criticizing him. “Cruz is not my first pick by any choice, but I don’t see how John Kasich can mount the opposition that Ted Cruz can to stop Donald Trump,” he said, according to the Post and Courier.
Graham, who backed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush after ending his own presidential bid in December, announced the endorsement after Senator Marco Rubio dropped out of the race on March 15 following a second-place showing in Florida, his home state.
Romney is seeking to deny Trump the nomination, saying he was "repulsed" by the "racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity and, most recently, threats and violence" associated with the real estate magnate’s candidacy. The move most immediately impacts the campaign of Kasich, who enjoyed Romney’s support as primary day approached in Ohio.
"I like Governor John Kasich," Romney wrote. "But a vote for Governor Kasich in future contests makes it extremely likely that Trumpism would prevail."
Romney’s suggestion that Kasich is a spoiler has been a common refrain for establishment Republicans. Bush’s team said that he would have performed better in South Carolina, where he ultimately dropped out of the race after a fourth-place finish, had Kasich folded his campaign after the New Hampshire primary. Kasich finished second in that northeast contest behind Trump, with almost 16 percent of the vote. Rubio’s supporters believe Kasich cost them a needed victory in Virginia, where the Floridian finished less than 3 points behind Trump and Kasich had over 9 percent of the vote.
“There are only two people who actually have a viable path to the nomination,” Jason Johnson, Cruz’s chief strategist, told reporters, according to the New York Times. “There’s one spoiler in the race: John Kasich.”
The response from the Kasich campaign was testy. "The fact is the establishment has gotten it wrong this entire primary and it is unfortunate to see that Mitt Romney is getting bad political advice," said John Weaver, the Kasich campaign's chief strategist. "John Kasich is best positioned to stop Donald Trump in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Pacific coast states."
Kasich campaigned almost exclusively in New Hampshire at the start of the campaign season and, after the second-place finish there, staked his candidacy on Ohio. He promised to quit the race if he lost, and, based on a victory there on March 15, maintains that he'll be the next president.
But even Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, both Kasich supporters, struggled in interviews with Bloomberg this week to say where the Ohio governor could win next.
"There are a bunch of states coming up that he should do well in," Portman said in an interview March 15 on Bloomberg Politics’ "With All Due Respect." "Pennsylvania is certainly one... He’s also looking east, at some of those states and some of the states in the Midwest."
A Harper poll of Republicans in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 26, showed Kasich trailing Trump by 26 points on March 2. A Marquette poll taken in February in Wisconsin, a winner-take-all state that votes on April 5, showed Kasich trailing Trump by 22 points. And an Emerson poll of New York, which holds its primary on April 19, showed 64 percent of Republicans backing Trump. Kasich was at 1 percent.
On Friday, Kasich's campaign pointed to four fundraisers and donors who have backed his campaign since the Ohio primary to show he is gaining momentum: longtime Republican fundraiser Bobbie Kilberg of Virginia, who previously backed Rubio; Rick Caruso, founder of real-estate developer Caruso Affiliated Holdings in Los Angeles; Richard Roeder, and Robert Addison Day. Kasich has also added campaign staff in several states.
"Of the people left in the race, he’s got the experience,’’ Caruso said of Kasich by phone. "We've got critical problems in the country, and John's best equipped to handle them.''