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Packed crowd piles in for a chance to see Mitt Romney blast Donald Trump

SALT LAKE CITY — Until she heard Mitt Romney's unapologetic criticism of presidential candidate Donald Trump, University of Utah student Ashley Wilcox wondered whether other voters are as concerned as she is that the GOP front-runner might become the party's nominee.

"The fact is, knowing my hesitancy (about Trump) isn't misunderstood, because obviously Mitt had the same concerns I do, that was really reassuring for me," Wilcox said Thursday as she left Romney's speech, an impromptu addition to the Hinckley Institute of Politics' forum series.

"When he first started running, it was kind of a joke. Everyone was like, 'Oh, it's Trump, whatever.' But it all of a sudden became so real."

However, what Wilcox was really hoping for was an announcement from Romney that he would make a late run for the GOP nomination. She still hasn't given up on the idea.

"He would have a lot of catching up to do, that's for sure, but it would be an amazing thing to see," Wilcox said. "It would definitely turn tables."

While the freshman math student said she may still end up voting for Trump if he secures the nomination, it would likely represent support for the party rather than for Trump himself.

Wilcox wasn't among those in the cheering crowd who scored a handshake from the 2012 Republican presidential nominee after he finished his roast of Trump, but she was pleased to get "a wave and some Snapchats."

A line of students and members of the public hoping to see Romney's speech started forming at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, wrapping halfway around President's Circle and watching as national media filed in throughout the morning. The crowd shot to its feet the moment Romney entered, greeting him with a rousing cheer and loudly applauding his punchiest lines.

Before taking the stage, Romney appeared outside the U.'s Libby Gardner Hall to say hello and shake hands with those who weren't going to make it inside.

For the first two students in line, political science majors Austin Fulton and Eliza Carr, the chance to hear Romney's take on the 2016 race for the White House was well worth skipping class.

"It's an opportunity you can't miss. I can catch up on my classwork later," Fulton said.

As the two students, both Republicans, waited in line, they speculated about whether Romney will eventually enter the race against Trump and the rest of the GOP field. Either way, Carr believes Romney's comments about the bombastic businessman will prove important as the election proceeds.

"The Republican race is just a mess right now, and so someone needs to stand up and say something," Carr said. "The Democratic Party is down to two nominees and they're going to figure it out soon. … There needs to be someone who says, 'Let's figure this out and move on because we have a race to win.'"

Enthusiasm surrounding Romney's speech is just the beginning of the political buzz in the state, said Fulton, who will be watching to see how Romney's criticism of Trump plays into upcoming GOP debates, including one scheduled later this month in Salt Lake City.

"For the state of Utah, it's really cool," Fulton said. "Our caucus has been moved up, we're going to have the debate, and we've got (Romney) coming into town today. I think it's nice for us to be a part of the national conversation at this point. I think that's one of the reasons this is so exciting."

A venue and a media partner has not yet been announced for the March 21 GOP debate, though a source has told the Deseret News that Fox News is expected to host the event and that both the Salt Palace and the U.'s Huntsman Center are under consideration.

As of Wednesday evening, Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said Trump campaign officials in New York City have indicated the billionaire businessman has every intention of participating in the debate.

Dressed in an American flag shirt, freshman James Smith called Romney's 15-minute speech "a beacon of hope" in the stormy political field, adding that his message was "reassuring."

"I think it was worth it to hear a calm and collected voice that was there to speak to the people and not speak at the people," Smith said. "Trump does need to be stopped, and the GOP does have a future if Trump can be stopped."

Smith and his friends got in line early to score front row seats for the event, not realizing that also put them in line for a handshake from Romney as he exited. He recalled a day in 2012, shortly after Romney's failed bid for the White House, when the former candidate was spotted at a Utah pizza restaurant and Smith rushed to try to meet him, arriving a few minutes too late.

"We've always aspired to meet him, so shaking his hand was a pretty cool experience for me," Smith said.

He said he was "perplexed" by people who tried to disrupt Romney's remarks.

While a few hecklers were heard during Romney's speech, including one who was escorted out shouting "You're ridiculous" to Romney, any protests were quickly drowned out by chants of "We love Mitt" by the vast majority in the packed auditorium.

Despite Romney's attacks on the reality-TV-star-turned-politician, Salt Lake City residents Carol Lee Willis and Mark Terran remained staunchly on Team Trump after hearing the speech.

"He's the only presidential candidate who can save this country," Willis said. "We are being invaded by illegal aliens, and I feel that his approach to find out what is going on is appropriate. I feel good about the man."

Terran agreed that his primary concern this election cycle is immigration.

"Churches and businessmen are cashing in big on illegal immigration at the expense of the well-being of society at large," Terran said. "No matter what Romney said up there, I believe the churches and the chambers (of commerce) put him up to this, and I believe that stopping Trump from enforcing immigration law is their true ulterior motivation."


Twitter: McKenzieRomero