SALT LAKE CITY — GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said Friday, "Do I love the Mormons," at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, then asked whether Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 nominee, was really a Mormon.
"I have lots of friends and by the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them," he told the crowd of about 1,200 people inside the Infinity Event Center on 600 South. "Are you sure he's a Mormon?"
It capped a day of back-and-forth between Trump and Romney and was the final appearance of the day by presidential candidates who swept into Utah in advance of Tuesday's presidential preference caucus election.
Romney's name drew boos from the Trump supporters who had waited hours to see the billionaire business and reality TV star's first campaign appearance in the state.
Several times, Trump refered to Romney's loss to President Barack Obama in 2012, saying, "He choked like a dog." Four years ago, Trump endorsed Romney in the Republican primary.
But two weeks ago, Romney labeled Trump a fraud and a phony at a widely covered speech at the University of Utah, warning Republicans he would lose the race in November to Democratic frontrunner former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
On Friday, Romney announced on Facebook he was voting for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz because Trump "has become associated with racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity, and most recently, threats and violence."
Another jab Trump took at Romney was about his campaigning for the other Republican in the race, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, before saying he would vote for Cruz. "People say, are you sure you know what you're doing?"
Trump praised Mormons a second time in his 45-minute speech, saying a friend he identified as Jewish, calls Mormons "the hardest working people. He loves the Mormons."
Many Mormons work for him, Trump said, "and they constantly give" to their church, directly from their paychecks. "They say they don't want to be tempted by keeping their money," he said.
Those statements were greeted with enthusiasm, like just about everything he said in a speech that included critical references to Cruz, Kasich and Clinton, along with now-familiar promises.
Utahns heard a "guarantee" Mexico will pay for a wall along its U.S. border, Obama's health care law will be repealed, vets will be cared for, ISIS terrorists will be bombed and gun ownership will be protected.
He pointed to several members of the audience and said that if they had "a couple of guns" strapped to their hips, they would be able to defend terrorist attacks similar to those experienced in Paris and San Bernardino.
"I’m not an angry person," Trump said, adding he and others are angry at the incompetence of those who run the country. "We don’t’ win any more. We don’t win. You’re going to see a tremendous change."
Jody Wolf of Sandy said she liked what she heard. She said as a Mormon, she was not offended at what Trump had to say about Romney's faith.
"That's just Trump being Trump," Wolf said.
But she said she was "surprised he bashed so much at the beginning" because she wanted to hear more specifics about his plans for the country. "I don't think he's going to hurt the country."
Alan and Sherri Gowens of Centerville said their interest in Trump had prompted them to attend their first-ever campaign event Friday. Both LDS, they didn't mind what Trump said about whether Romney was a Mormon, either.
"He's just joking. That's how Trump is. He jokes a lot," Alan Gowens said. Sherri Gowens said she thought he was asking if Romney was "living up to his true Mormon values" by coming out against Trump.
The crowd was loud and boisterous throughout the event. But Trump tweeted later: "Just leaving Salt Lake City, Utah - fantastic crowd with no interruptions. Love Utah - will be back!"
An announcement before Trump took the stage advised the crowd, "please do not touch or harm the protesters. This is a peaceful rally." Instead, supporters were told to chant near demonstrators so they could be removed by security.
Secret Service agents in flak jackets joined Salt Lake City Police officers and other security in the venue, which usually hosts concerts. Media, including the major television networks, were behind barricades in the back of the hall.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans was heckled briefly after he brought up the possibility of a contested Republican National Convention this summer in Cleveland with taunts about how Trump is being treated by some in the party.
"Mitt Romney sucks," someone yelled, while others called for the GOP to "let Trump in" and then began chanting, "Trump, Trump, Trump." Evans told the crowd to channel their anger and frustration by voting.
Evans, who is African-American, said he took "to the streets" in the deep south as a teenager. "We are government," he said. "If we don't keep control, if we don't keep the power in our hands, we only have ourselves to blame."
Several Utah legislative leaders also spoke before Trump's arrival, including House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who had supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio dropped out this week after losing his home state's primary.
Hughes called the Trumps "real and genuine people. It's a real family."
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