SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney said he's critical of presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump so he "can sleep at night," but some Utahns may be growing tired of him challenging a fellow Republican.
"Utah Republicans are put into a very tough situation of agreeing Trump is the worst possible Republican candidate, but still believing the worst possible Republican candidate is better than Hillary Clinton," longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers said.
While Romney still has an audience in the GOP-dominated state, Jowers said Republicans increasingly are concerned that he's "hurting the Republican cause" and helping the likely Democratic presidential nominee.
In an interview in Friday's Wall Street Journal, Romney said many in the GOP would agree, but "others, including myself, believe our first priority should be to stand by our principles, and if those are in conflict with the nominee, the principles come first."
The Republican Party's 2012 presidential candidate also said he knows "that some people are offended that someone who lost and is the former nominee continues to speak, but that's how I can sleep at night."
Romney said he won't vote for either Trump or Clinton, and in what may be a nod to conservative efforts to find a third-party candidate, he expressed hope that he "will find a name I can support. If not, I will write in a name."
Romney, who reportedly rejected a third-party bid for the White House, also told the Wall Street Journal he has "made it clear I'm not running" despite renewed calls he get in the race as well as suggestions he's actually considering it.
His efforts against Trump, described as an "increasingly lonely challenge" by the newspaper, started with tweets in response to some of the billionaire businessman and reality TV star's controversial statements.
In March, Romney helped jump-start the "Stop Trump" movement by labeling him a fraud and a phony, and warning his election would make for a less safe world in a widely covered speech at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
And at Romney's urging, Utah Republicans gave Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a big victory in the state GOP's March 22 caucus presidential preference vote over Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Trump. Since then, both Cruz and Kasich have dropped out of the race.
"That day was very different from today," said Jason Perry, head of the Hinckley Institute. "I'm not sure the voters of the state of Utah are thinking right now whether they are necessarily betraying Mitt Romney."
With Trump the only remaining GOP option, Perry said Utah Republicans are realizing they don't want to switch parties and are "starting to fall in line, even if they are not falling in love."
They are also becoming uneasy about the impact Romney is having on the election at this point, he said.
"Some are feeling like the continued opposition from Mitt Romney is starting to actually help Hillary Clinton. At some point, a united party is better than a divided party. The longer the anti-Trump choir sings, the harder it is for the party to unite," Perry said.
Longtime Utah pollster Dan Jones said most voters in the state want a Republican in the White House, as well as for the GOP to retain control of the House and Senate, in large part to help ensure conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just before the caucus vote, a Deseret News/KSL poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed Utah would vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964 if Trump were at the top of the ticket.
But by mid-May, a UtahPolicy.com poll conducted by Jones found Trump beating both Clinton and the other candidate still in the running for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Jones said for Trump to win in November, he "must stop the rude, crude and unrefined rhetoric that he has," something that turned off voters in Utah even as the rest of the country made him the GOP front-runner.
There's still some lingering hope Romney or someone else will get in the race as a third-party candidate, Jones said.
"They'd feel more comfortable," he said. "I don't know if that's in the cards."
Boyd Matheson, head of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank, said the Romney vs. Trump battle demonstrates "how hard it is to simply be against something."
Matheson said Romney needs to start talking about what the Republican candidate should be for in the upcoming election, shifting from "personality attack stuff" to solutions for the country.
"Otherwise, I do think there is a chance that Utahns say, 'Enough is enough,'" he said. "Mitt is playing a role that is not to his strength. Mitt's strength is looking at problems and then figuring out a visionary solution not just yelling at the problem."
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