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Mitt Romney's anti-Trump strategy may well double as a Romney nomination strategy

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Mitt Romney delivered a much-anticipated speech lacing into Donald Trump on Thursday. He blasted, among other things, the GOP frontrunner's temperament, business record, policy positions, and use of foul language.

"If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished," Romney said.

And then he endorsed … well, nobody in particular.

"Given the current delegate selection process," Romney continued, "I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders who has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state."

Romney's refusal to actually back a single anti-Trump alternative may seem surprising. But it's just the most visible sign yet, given the results of Super Tuesday, that GOP elites' efforts to consolidate the field have failed — and that they believe no non-Trump candidate has a plausible path to a delegate majority anymore.

Barring some sudden and major change in the race, I basically agree with Romney's assessment of the delegate math. And so do a growing number of Republicans, according to reports by National Review's Tim Alberta and the Atlantic's Ron Brownstein. Marco Rubio is so far behind that he'd have to win two-thirds of the remaining delegates to get a majority. And Ted Cruz looks close to Trump in delegates, but that's only because he won so big in his home state of Texas — the calendar going forward appears much worse for him. As for John Kasich, well, he never seemed to have a plausible path, and he certainly doesn't after coming out of Super Tuesday with just 27 delegates.

So Romney's hope is now to deprive Trump of an outright majority of delegates — a much more achievable feat so long as multiple candidates stay in the race. This would force a contested convention in which, elites hope, an anti-Trump delegate majority could rally around someone else.

But it's impossible to ignore the other big potential implication of the strategy Romney advocated: It's also the only strategy that could make Mitt Romney the 2016 Republican nominee.

Romney was very, very short of Sherman-esque in his speech

Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty

Mitt Romney has dreamed of being president for quite some time. He first ran in 2008, and went for round two in 2012. And as late as January 2015, it was clear that he still held out hope — he seriously considered running this time around too, though he ultimately decided not to. So, yes, unless something big changed in the past 14 months or so, Romney still very much would like to be president.

Naturally, then, he began his speech Thursday by saying "I am not here to announce my candidacy for office." But it was obvious that Romney wouldn't enter a primary contest for which important ballot deadlines passed long ago. And he conspicuously failed to say that he had no interest in being his party's nominee.

The way that would happen is if Romney and his backers float his name as an anti-Trump compromise candidate that could be anointed at a contested convention. Because if Trump does fall short of that delegate majority, the party will search for a consensus on someone. And if Rubio and Cruz keep splitting most of the anti-Trump vote, each would have little reason to endorse the other.

So who better to unite the party than the guy everyone voted for in 2012?

Indeed, Romney's speech seemed expertly crafted to position himself as the defender of conservatism to the party's existing activists and establishment. He chided Trump's advocacy of tariffs, saying they would cause a "trade war." He scolded Trump's "refusal to reform entitlements." He attacked Trump's foreign policy views as "very not smart," and defended the honesty of George W. Bush.

Romney was signaling to GOP leaders and delegates that he will defend the Republican Party as it currently stands from Donald Trump. And many of them surely watched that speech and felt Romney's critiques of Trump were far more professional, biting, and persuasive than anything the candidates on the trail have offered so far.

If Romney makes this pitch, could it possibly work? It's not yet clear. Of course, he'd need a contested convention to happen in the first place, and Trump could avert that scenario by simply winning a delegate majority. And if the contested convention does happen, then there's the question of whether the delegates would even want Romney — perhaps they'd prefer a bland Midwestern governor instead, as many pre-reform nominating conventions did. A great deal would hinge on just who those delegates turn out to be, and in many states that's not yet clear, as Elaine Kamarck has written.

So, yes, all this may sound fanciful. But as top Republicans increasingly lose hope that anyone can beat Trump outright, the remaining scenarios for stopping him are necessarily fanciful and unprecedented. Then again, as Romney himself said, this is an unprecedented year.