LAS VEGAS, NV — Donald Trump formally endorsed Mitt Romney in a joint appearance at his Las Vegas hotel on Thursday, capping off a zany half-day in which conflicting media reports suggested he might endorse Newt Gingrich instead.
“Its my honor, real honor, and privilege to endorse Mitt Romney,” Trump said. “Mitt is tough, he’s smart, he’s sharp, he’s not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we all love.”
In accepting his endorsement, Romney emphasized Trump’s tough talk on China, arguably the Donald’s signature issue after his penchant for conspiracy theories about President Obama.
“He understands that our economy is facing threats from abroad,” Romney said. “He’s one of the few people who has stood up and said China has been cheating, they’ve taken jobs from America, they haven’t played fair.”
The event was over within minutes. While Romney did not take questions, Trump held a brief meeting with reporters before being spirited off by his staff into a waiting car outside.
The normally reserved Romney’s shout-out to Trump on China is a daring one considering the scale of his off-the-wall rhetoric on the issue. In theory, it could add some teeth by association to Romney’s half-hearted attempts at populism. Even some of Romney’s supporters don’t buy it when the candidate tells them “I’ll clamp down on China.” But when Trump says he’d tell China “Listen you mother f***ers we’re going to tax you 25 percent,” as he did at a Vegas event in April, people take notice.
“He’s got some balls,” Sherry Rickard, president of the Republican Women of Las Vegas club and an attendee at Trump’s f-bomb speech, told TPM on Thursday. “He was saying we need to protect America and people approve that message.”
The sparkling white marble and chandelier-bedecked lobby of the Trump International was dominated by reporters on Thursday morning, with a handful of Romney supporters, Trump fans, and just plain celebrity watchers in truck to observe the scene. One Trump fan sporting a “Team Glock” hat waited eagerly for a glimpse at The Donald — but said he was still voting for Gingrich.
It’s an open question just what Romney gains out of the endorsement. Donald Trump isn’t exactly Mr. Popular after his re-emergence on the political scene as America’s foremost birther. Throw in his uniquely unfortunate catch phrase (“You’re fired!”) and Democrats are all too happy to hang him around Romney’s neck. But despite his collapse in polls after briefly leading the Republican primary last Spring, Trump still enjoys a devoted following among the right-leaning voters that Romney has struggled the most to court, perhaps explaining the governor’s decision to take the plunge after avoiding being seen with him just months earlier.
Asked by reporters what voters his endorsement brings to the table, he again raised the China issue, saying he attracted “people that are tired of watching this nation get ripped off — and that’s a lot of people.”
At the very least, Trump’s endorsement should cut off speculation of an independent run, which he has threatened to do repeatedly. As recently as late December, a PPP poll showed Trump was the biggest threat to Romney in a three-way race of any candidate polled. Not only did he get 19% of the vote in their hypothetical match-up, but his voters went for Romney 71-10 over Obama in a two-way contest. He told reporters on Thursday that so long as Romney wins the nomination, he’ll stay on the sidelines
Dan Forsyth, a Romney supporter visiting from Arkansas who stopped by to check out the event, was acutely aware of the dangers of a rogue Trump candidacy.
“It’s better than him deciding to run,” he said of Trump’s endorsement. “He could tip the scales fast to Obama.”
There is still a question, however, of whether Trump’s backing will bring right wing voters to Romney or just spur them to dump Trump for bucking Tea Party icons like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain and getting behind the establishment guy.
“I think if there’s a group that a Trump endorsement would appeal to it’s super angry Tea Party voters,” PPP pollster Tom Jensen told TPM. “But I don’t think there’s any way those folks are going to vote for Romney…I think by endorsing Romney all Trump actually does is antagonize the few people who do still like him.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.