STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Last night'S Republican debate capped an astonishing day, the same day Mitt Romney, the party's - the Republican party's - 2012 nominee for president, denounced Donald Trump, this year's frontrunner, and insisted he was dangerous to the country.
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MITT ROMNEY: His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America in the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.
INSKEEP: Donald Trump responded with a tirade a short time later that included a reference to Mitt Romney on his knees. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is following all this. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Has anything like this ever happened?
MONTANARO: Well, look, you know, it was a remarkable day, like you point out. I mean, to see the standard-bearer just four years earlier come out so strongly opposed to the frontrunner, calling him a phony and a fraud, you know, this is - it's amazing. The base of the party, though, you know, doesn't really seem to want to listen to the establishment and party leaders, especially the person who lost the last election. Now, when you think about has it happened before, in 1960, President Truman came out against John F. Kennedy. a week before the convention, Truman actually said that Kennedy was unready to lead and even accused the Democratic National Committee of being rigged in favor of Kennedy. Now, this isn't anywhere like that because Truman actually went on to campaign for for Kennedy, and I don't think you're going to see Mitt Romney doing that for Donald Trump.
INSKEEP: Not if he's saying it's a danger to the country, but has he waited too long to make this denunciation?
MONTANARO: Well, that's part of it. And I think that if he's going to say that he's a danger to the country and you've seen this unified message from other groups - super PACs spending $16 million against Donald Trump. You've seen other campaigns now, people who were working for other campaigns, now putting out opposition research against Donald Trump when it comes to Trump University, his failed brands, anything like that. But last night at the debate, they kind of undercut that whole message. If he's so dangerous for the country, how could all four of the people on that stage say that Donald Trump would be fine in a general election, that they would support him. Even if there were some hesitancy there, if he's that dangerous, it undercuts their argument.
INSKEEP: Not only that, even Romney did not seem to think that he had come in time to have the party coalesce behind another nominee. He talked of the other candidates, such as Rubio and Cruz, splitting up the vote in such a way that there might be a deadlocked convention. That's a pretty desperate scenario.
MONTANARO: It was pretty amazing to listen to him strategically tell people, you know, vote for Mark Rubio in Florida, vote for John Kasich in Ohio and vote for anybody else who could beat Donald Trump in any other state. You know, there are really three scenarios in which the Republican establishment right now thinks that Donald Trump could be stopped. In their view, they think that someone could beat him with delegates. That's unlikely. They think that somebody could stop him at least from getting a majority of the delegates and then they'd have to try to beat him at the convention, which can be a tough sell because if Donald Trump goes into the convention or anyone goes into a convention with the most votes, it's very tough to say to those delegates now go and vote for someone else.
INSKEEP: Yeah, even if it's not a majority, he can say he got the most. Is Mitt Romney playing for himself here?
MONTANARO: Look, it's very difficult. I think that he thinks that the party is - that he's somebody who needs to influence the party and say that he - that this is not the person that the party needs, that the party could be split apart. And I think he genuinely believes that. You know, some people might say he's raising his hand to say, well, you know, if you choose somebody else on that second ballot, come for me. But I don't think that's necessarily what Romney's up to. I think he just thinks he wants anybody but Trump.
INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks very much as always.
MONTANARO: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. He's our political editor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.