Mitt Romney let it slide when his Republican primary opponent ripped him as a flip-flopping ‘‘Boston businessman’’ who ‘‘has seen fit to relocate here’’ during a Utah Senate debate on Tuesday night. He didn’t get worked up as the young state representative, Mike Kennedy, attacked him for signing an assault weapons ban as governor of Massachusetts and imposing an individual mandate that forced people to buy health insurance, a.k.a. Romneycare.
But the onetime standard-bearer of the GOP would not let it go when his opponent mentioned that Romney called Donald Trump a ‘‘phony’’ and a ‘‘fraud’’ in 2016 and recently attacked Robert Jeffress, an ally of the president, as a ‘‘religious bigot.’’
It came toward the end of an hourlong debate at Brigham Young University in Provo. Moderator David Magleby said there wasn’t enough time for the front-runner to respond. Romney protested. So Magleby, a professor at the school, said he could take 20 seconds.
‘‘No, no, no, no,’’ Romney complained. ‘‘I get longer!’’
The 71-year-old touted ‘‘relationships’’ he has with the Trump White House that he says will help him offset the clout being lost by the Beehive State with the retirement of Orrin Hatch, who has served in the Senate for 41 years.
‘‘First of all, I’ve known the president for a long, long time and the president has endorsed me in this campaign — which shows he respects people who call ’em like they see ’em,’’ Romney said in a 55-second answer.
‘‘I’m not sure with President Trump, you see things the right way,’’ said Kennedy, a practicing physician. ‘‘I do know some good doctors if you’d like a referral to get your vision checked because I think President Trump has been outstanding. He is one of the presidents that we have that actually keeps his promises . . . and I’m proud to stand with the president and not deride him publicly.’’
Kennedy recently phoned Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor, to apologize on behalf of the people of Utah after Romney said he should not have been invited to speak at the opening of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem. Romney noted that Jeffress has said Mormonism is a cult, that it’s a heresy from the pit of hell, and that Joseph Smith — the founder of their church — is a servant of Satan.
‘‘The idea that this person would be chosen by the State Department to represent our nation at the opening of an embassy is simply wrong and for Representative Kennedy to call him and apologize to him is absolutely inexplicable,’’ Romney said. ‘‘When people express bigotry, they ought to be called out for it.’’
The exchange encapsulated the balancing act that defines Romney’s comeback bid and illustrated the degree to which Trump has taken over the Republican Party. Note that Romney chalked up Jeffress’s invitation to ‘‘the State Department,’’ not the Trump administration — to distance the decision from the president.
Just two years ago, Romney was not just willing but eager to ‘‘call out’’ Trump for what he said at the time were bigoted comments. Now, like most Republicans, he embraces the president’s policies and tries to downplay everything else. That tension was ever present during the debate, but it was especially apparent on the topics of trade and immigration.
Kennedy, who got elected to the state House in 2012, won the support of slightly more delegates than Romney at last month’s Utah GOP state convention — 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent. That was close enough to force a two-way primary.
Romney is heavily favored to win the June 26 GOP primary and the general election.