Donald Trump greets former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in February 2012 after announcing his endorsement of Romney in the presidential race during a news conference in Las Vegas. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
Columnist

The statesmanlike version of Mitt Romney has left the building, and the self-proclaimed “severely conservative” one has returned.

The 2012 Republican presidential nominee and current favorite as a Utah Senate candidate had been developing something of a reputation as the GOP’s principled grown-up. He offered a glimpse of what might have been, had President Trump — whom Romney has called “a phony” and “a fraud” — not hijacked the party and remade it in his own image. And he was a leading critic of the president for his failures in moral leadership, most conspicuously after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville.

Now, Romney has pivoted to out-Trump Trump on the Trumpiest issue of all: immigration.

At an appearance Monday in Provo, Utah, the former Massachusetts governor suggested that he would go further than Trump, by expelling young people who were brought to this country illegally by their parents. About 700,000 of them are protected from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump has called for an end to the program, but has also proposed replacing it with a new system under which 1.8 million of the “dreamers” would receive a path to citizenship.

“I’m a deficit hawk,” Romney declared, making an apparent reference to the massive spending bill that the president just signed. “That makes me more conservative than a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats. I’m also more of a hawk on immigration than even the president. My view was these DACA kids shouldn’t all be allowed to stay in the country legally.”

“I will accept the president’s view on this, but for me, I draw the line and say, those who’ve come illegally should not be given a special path to citizenship,” he added.

If all of this sounds cruel, it is also a reminder of Romney’s long-held views on immigration. During his presidential campaign, he memorably promised to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they would leave through “self-deportation.”

Ironically, after Romney lost, Trump criticized him as being too harsh on immigration: “He had a crazy policy of self deportation which was maniacal. It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote. He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”

Romney’s latest move is curious as a political gambit. Utah, while a conservative state, has relatively moderate views on opening up more immigration. The Mormon Church supports DACA. In his own Senate announcement video in February, Romney noted: “Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the world. Washington sends immigrants a message of exclusion. And on Utah’s Capitol Hill, people treat one another with respect.” Romney’s own father, who ran for president, was born in Mexico.

So why stress his hard-line immigration view now? The most obvious explanation is that Romney, who considered jumping into the 2016 presidential race with a stop-Trump independent candidacy, senses vulnerability. He is worth keeping an eye on. You can be sure that Trump is doing that.