PORTLAND, Maine — Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump blasted Mitt Romney in Maine on Thursday after the party’s 2012 nominee criticized him, saying Romney would have “dropped to his knees” for his endorsement four years ago.
The billionaire mogul rallied with Gov. Paul LePage, who became a top Trump surrogate after endorsing him last week, in the ballroom at The Westin Portland Harborview hotel two days before Maine’s Republican caucuses.
The political outsider has done it by running on an often vague, us-against-them populist platform: He has called for a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. and a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border that he has said Mexico will pay for and said many immigrants are “rapists.”
The Maine event was Trump’s first public appearance after Romney’s Thursday speech denouncing Trump’s politics and calling him a “phony” and “fraud” who is “playing the American public for suckers.”
Romney got Trump’s endorsement in 2012, but Trump denounced him as a “choke artist” on Thursday.
“He was begging for my endorsement,” Trump said in a 45-minute speech. “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
It’s hard to gauge how Trump will fare in Saturday’s Maine caucuses because there has been no recent public polling in the state, but he may do well, especially with the backing of LePage, a popular figure among Maine’s conservative grass-roots.
Trump won New Hampshire in February and Massachusetts and Vermont on Tuesday — the only neighboring states that have voted so far — and is on track to win the Republican nomination, according to estimates from FiveThirtyEight.
Sensing that impending inevitability, many mainstream Republicans are trying to stop him. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is perhaps Trump’s top rival and ramped up criticism of the front-runner over the past week, is the beneficiary of much of the establishment’s support.
But he has only won one state — Minnesota — and is lagging behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who will rally at the University of Maine in Orono on Friday.
Cruz gained endorsements last month from a group of Maine Republican legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason. Rubio has touted endorsements from a small group of Maine establishment figures, including former Senate President Kevin Raye and former Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, and also was endorsed by more than a dozen legislators Thursday.
The group of Trump’s Republican critics — somewhat schizophrenically — once included LePage, who urged party governors at a closed-door meeting six days before his endorsement to draft a letter opposing Trump’s politics, according to The New York Times.
A lot changed over that week: In a potential sign of Trump’s momentum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the candidate that LePage backed until he dropped out of the race in February, endorsed Trump last Friday, hours before LePage did.
But LePage was gung-ho for Trump on Thursday, introducing him as a leader “who says what needs to be said” and will “fight for us while the establishment has left us behind.”
He mentioned Romney as one of the establishment figures saying “you’re not going to be our president” to Trump.
“Guess what?” LePage said. “We’re going to prove them wrong.”
Several protesters were removed from Trump’s speech and his event drew a protest of hundreds on Thursday morning in Congress Square Park, just outside the hotel where Trump spoke.
It was organized by a handful of activists, including Portland school board member Pious Ali and Republican strategist Lance Dutson, a moderate who formed Get Right Maine, a group that has been critical of LePage and Trump.
Ali, a Ghanaian immigrant, derided Trump’s comments on race and immigrants, turning around Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
“We don’t have to call each other names,” he said. “The only way we can make America great again is by working with each other.”
Trump supporters were standing in line outside the hotel during the protest, and some chanted “Trump!” as protesters spoke or cheered. Amanda Martin, who lives in Standish and said she supported Hillary Clinton in 2007, said she objected to accusations on her Facebook wall that she is a racist after she posted Wednesday she would be attending the Trump rally.
Jarrod Reynolds of South Portland was waiting with Martin to get into Trump’s event, though he doesn’t agree with some of the candidate’s stances on immigration, including “this whole wall thing.” Still, he said he supports Trump because he’s different than other hopefuls.
“Something’s got to give and something’s got to change,” Reynolds said.
BDN writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report.