Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney, seen here campaigning in Ohio in 2012, long ago ruled out a 2016 run but has been following the race closely and has ideas for the Republican Party to win back the White House. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

By Philip Rucker
September 30, 2015 at 5:30 PM

Mitt Romney long ago ruled out a presidential run in 2016, but he is hardly retired from politics.

As he answered questions from college students for an hour on Wednesday, it became clear that Romney is a keen if not obsessive observer of the campaign’s twists and turns and has strong ideas on what the Republican Party and its eventual nominee must do to win back the White House.

“The Democrats have done a great job characterizing my party as the party of the rich,” Romney said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He added: “Rich people have gotten richer under President Obama. It’s the poor and the middle class who are suffering. It’s the poor and the middle class who need conservatives.”

Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, spoke Wednesday afternoon at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington. One of his former campaign aides, Jake Kastan, who is now pursuing an MBA at Georgetown, invited Romney to visit and moderated a question-and-answer session with a few hundred fellow students.
Mitt Romney, shown here being endorsed by Donald Trump in 2012, has sharp criticism for Trump as a 2016 candidate. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Assessing the presidential contest, Romney said he was surprised at how it was unfolding. Romney seriously considered entering himself in what would have been his third quest for the presidency, but he decided against it in January.

“I would have never predicted that the leader of my party at this stage would be Donald Trump and the leader in their party right now would be a socialist,” Romney said, referring to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont.

Romney had sharp words for Trump, a billionaire businessman and reality television star who endorsed Romney in 2012 and donated to his campaign. Explaining the Trump phenomenon, Romney said, “Frankly, when you light your hair on fire, you make the evening news, and some people have a lot of hair lit on fire.”

“The attention that Mr. Trump has brought to the process is welcome,” Romney said. “We like the fact that people are watching the debates. That’s the positive side. The negative side is that he’s said some things that he described the other day as being ‘childish.’ . . . I’m afraid he brought attention to [immigration] in a way that was not productive and not appropriate in saying the things he did about Mexican American immigrants.”

Romney said he is concerned that several candidates — he did not name names — have made statements “that some minority populations look at and say, ‘Wow, I guess they don’t like me very much.’ ” He said Republicans must communicate with heart and say, “We like legal immigration and we like helping people.”

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