DETROIT • A divided Republican Party erupted into open and bitter warfare as its two previous presidential nominees delivered an extraordinary rebuke of its current front runner Donald Trump, warning that his election could put the United States and its democratic system in peril.
In a detailed, thorough and lacerating assault on the 69-year-old Mr Trump and the angry movement he has inspired, Mr Mitt Romney, the party's nominee in 2012, attacked him as "a fraud" and "a phony" who would drive the country to the point of collapse.
"He's playing the American public for suckers," Mr Romney said on Thursday, breaking from his customary restraint. "He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president."
As soon as he was finished, Senator John McCain, 79, the party's standard-bearer in 2008, endorsed Mr Romney's jeremiad and denounced Mr Trump as a candidate who was ignorant of foreign policy and has made "dangerous" pronouncements on national security.
For a party that prizes unity and loyalty, it was an unheard-of onslaught against a figure who is marching towards the nomination, highlighting the widening and seemingly unbridgeable gaps between Republican leaders and their electorate.
But it was only the start of a chaotic day of brickbats hurled back and forth across the country among the Republican Party's past and present leadership.
In an immediate, venomous reply, Mr Trump belittled Mr Romney's objections and derided him as a "failed candidate", "choke artist" and "loser" for his loss to President Barack Obama in 2012.
By day's end, there was a growing prospect that the party's elders could abandon the Republican nominee this autumn, a once unthinkable scenario.
Mr Romney, 68, did not endorse any candidate but said: "I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr Trump in a given state," he said. Mr Rubio is a senator from Florida and Mr Kasich is the Ohio governor.
By calling for targeted voting, Mr Romney was setting up the possibility of a contested convention when Republicans gather in Cleveland in mid-July to select their nominee for the November election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama. That could create a pathway to deny Mr Trump the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination.
Former senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a supporter of Mr Rubio, said that Mr Trump's nomination would create a "historic breach" in the Republican Party. "This guy cannot be the president of the United States," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS