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[WASHINGTON] American conservatives faced a wrenching decision Thursday about their party's future: embrace Donald Trump's divisive but winning Republican presidential bid, or take former nominee Mitt Romney's advice and find a way to derail the billionaire's victory march.
With the controversial real estate tycoon apparently on a glide path to becoming the Republican standard-bearer, some party leaders, operatives and voters have begun to panic at the prospect of nominee Trump, while others are saying it's time, for better or worse, to rally around the man leading the pack.
The last-ditch effort to halt Trump, some say, threatens to rupture the Grand Old Party. Trump himself acknowledged as much Thursday, telling MSNBC that "we have a party that's stagnant and dying." In some of the bluntest criticism yet from the party establishment, Mitt Romney - who ran unsuccessfully against Barack Obama in 2012 - lambasted Trump as unfit to be president.
Romney said if Trump were to be the nominee, it would enable a Democratic victory for the party's presumptive candidate Hillary Clinton.
"Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud" lacking the temperament and judgment to be commander-in-chief, Romney said in a speech in Utah, as he urged voters to rally around one of the remaining candidates: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio or Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Trump, Romney said, "is playing the American public for suckers." The party's 2008 White House nominee, Senator John McCain, piled on, saying he shared Romney's concerns and those expressed by top national security experts, calling Trump's statements "uninformed and indeed dangerous." Trump wasted little time before striking back, assailing Romney for "begging" for an endorsement, only to lose to Obama four years ago.
"I could have said 'Mitt, drop to your knees,' (and) he would have dropped to his knees," Trump said - with a sufficient dose of sexual innuendo to light up Twitter.
"He choked like I've never seen anyone choke," he told a rally in Maine, which holds its Republican primary on Saturday.
Whether or not Trump should carry the torch is the crux of the GOP race, which he has dominated essentially since he jumped in eight months ago.
It will no doubt feature prominently in Thursday night's Republican debate in Detroit, where Trump faces Cruz, Rubio and Kasich on stage.
In interviews with AFP, several conservatives gathering at an annual convention outside Washington said they were torn.
"I supported Rubio... now I'm going to have to hold my nose and vote for Trump," Ron Fodor, mayor of the small town of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Some voters proudly wore Trump shirts or "Make America Great Again" hats at the event, where Trump and Rubio are scheduled to speak Saturday.
House Republican Steve King backs Cruz, but he said forcing a party implosion just to stop a popular candidate was not the answer.
"We should not change the rules just because you don't like the person that emerges in the leadership," King told AFP.
The anti-Trump coalition is not the issue, argued Senator Ben Sasse, who is desperate to derail the tycoon.
"We have a frontrunner right now who has waged war against almost every core plank of the platform, so it isn't any anti-movement that's causing that problem," he said.
Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter, said if he is the catalyst for party disruption, so be it.
"The Republican Party needed to be shattered," she told AFP at CPAC.
"Losers" like Romney, she said, "have sat there and bullied the people to be quiet. All Mr. Trump is doing is pushing back." Resignation was setting in for some former Trump critics.
"It is too late," Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, whose earlier call to back an anti-Trump campaign fell flat, told the Washington Post Wednesday.
"There is a fantasy effort to stop Trump, like a fantasy campaign to stop yesterday but it exists only as the denial stage of grief." Still, the #NeverTrump movement was making a stand at CPAC, where Brian Hawkins, a 27-year old African-American waving a "Veterans Against Trump" sign, said it was time to rally around an alternate candidate.
"A lot of us are thoroughly offended that these elements of the Republican Party have somehow had the loudest voice or are on the verge of nominating Trump," Hawkins said.
Should Trump be actively blocked from becoming the nominee, it could be seen as blatant disregard for Republican voters and democratic principles.
"The Republican Party gave me Trump," whispered Doris, a grandmother from Maryland who asked that her last name not be used, as she walked past Hawkins.
"What we asked for, voted for, what we paid for - jobs, immigration, healthcare, balanced budget - nothing happened," she hissed, verging on tears as she criticized what she said was the party's unprincipled performance in Washington.
"And you know what? I think he's going to make it OK."