LAS VEGAS — Real estate mogul Donald Trump endorsed Mitt Romney for president on Thursday in a joint appearance — both theatrical and awkward — at a hotel Trump named after himself.
Trump had once mounted an informal campaign for president, and he had raised questions about Romney’s tenure as head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital. The two men have little in common: The showy, boastful Trump and the stiff, earnest Romney are two entirely opposite faces of American wealth.
But on Thursday, there they were. The pair appeared at the Trump Las Vegas Hotel, facing TV cameras behind a lectern that said TRUMP in big letters.
“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,” Trump said, while Romney and his wife, Ann, looked on with tight smiles. “So Governor Romney, go out and get ’em. You can do it.”
Romney spoke next. His first lines appeared to have been written with some care.
“Look, there are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” he said. “This is one of them.”
Trump’s endorsement may help Romney in the caucuses on Saturday in Nevada, where Trump’s name literally towers over the Las Vegas Strip. “It’s another indication that Republicans across the board are lining up behind Mitt Romney,” campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said.
Beyond Nevada, however, its value is unclear. Romney has sought to counter criticisms that his wealth and his background as a corporate chief executive have made him aloof. Trump, on other hand, has made a career out of celebrating his enormous wealth and his champagne tastes.
Romney was also criticized recently for telling an audience, “I like being able to fire people.” Trump’s most famous catchphrase is, of course, “You’re fired.” Democrats have already released a video linking the two: “They both like firing people.”
In January, a Washington Post-Pew poll showed that just 8 percent of Americans said they’d be more likely to vote for a Trump-endorsed candidate. In fact, 26 percent said that a Trump endorsement would actually make them less likely to vote for his choice.
“He brings zero votes, zero credibility and zero impact — [Trump] actually has a negative impact,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime Republican strategist who advised President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP nominee. “At a time when Romney needs legitimacy, the head clown steps in and welcomes him to the circus.”
Here in Nevada, Romney has a well-established campaign and can rely on heavy support from the Mormon voters who made up a quarter of the state’s caucusgoers in 2008.
On Thursday, a new poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed that Romney has the support of 45 percent of Republicans planning to participate in Saturday’s caucuses.
In second place was former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), with 25 percent support. In third place was former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who got some good news on Thursday: Tea party favorite Sharron Angle, a former Nevada state assemblywoman who ran unsuccessfully as the GOP nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010, announced that she would support him.
The other remaining GOP hopeful, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), won just 9 percent support in the poll despite years of organizing efforts in Nevada.
Since he was soundly beaten in Florida, Gingrich has maintained only a light campaign schedule here. He spent most of Thursday trying to raise money, making phone calls to donors and appearing at a fundraiser at a Las Vegas restaurant.
“There’s a reason we’re out in the West,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said. “Sure, we’re going to make a run for the caucuses. But don’t kid yourself. This trip is about raising money for Super Tuesday.” Super Tuesday is March 6, when 10 states will hold their nominating contests.
In fact, on Thursday, Gingrich’s cellphone made more news than he did.
During a tour of a Las Vegas factory, Gingrich’s phone began to ring in his pocket, to the tune of Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”
The chorus played twice through before the phone shut itself off. Gingrich made no attempt to turn it off.
Romney, on the other hand, had a day to remember.
He was praised by Trump, who said that the two men had “numerous meetings” and that he “really got to know [Romney] over the last few months.”
“The last two debates were very impressive and I really thought he did really well,” Trump said. “Plus, he’s the one person that really speaks strongly about China because China is ripping the country like nobody is ripping the country and he’s the one person that continuously mentions China and OPEC. His position’s very tough and that’s what it should be. It has to be.” Trump also said he would not run as a third-party candidate if Romney got the GOP nomination.
Whatever his good feelings for Romney, however, it was clear that Trump understood that the endorsement would also benefit Trump himself. Romney made only a brief appearance before the cameras. But Trump strolled by to talk with reporters three times. He talked up his hotel: “You like the hotel? You see why it’s number one in Nevada? Just take a look at the lobby.”
Staff writer Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report.