By Bob Lloyd
PROVO, Utah (Reuters) - Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, announced on Friday he would run for a U.S. Senate seat in Utah, confirming months of speculation about a return to national politics.
"I've decided to run for United States Senate because I've decided I can help bring Utah's values and Utah's lessons to Washington," Romney, who is seeking to replace retiring Senator Orrin Hatch, said in a video posted to Twitter.
Romney's video made no mention of Trump but his relationship with the president looms as a major issue in the campaign. Much of the video focused on Utah values versus the Washington culture.
"Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in Washington," he said. "... 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."
Trump has called for building a wall on the country's border with Mexico and limiting legal migration.
Romney, speaking on Friday evening at a Republican Party event in Provo, Utah, called Wednesday's school shooting in Florida "senseless, debased evil."
"We must take action to prevent this again," he said, adding that this would best be accomplished at the state and local levels, not in Washington.
Republicans hold 51 of the Senate's 100 seats but that majority is not always big enough to pass the Trump agenda.
If Romney wins the Senate race, it could set him up for a direct collision with Trump, with whom he has publicly sparred.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Romney excoriated Trump as a "fraud" who was "playing the American public for suckers." Trump responded that Romney had "choked like a dog" in his race against Obama.
However, after Trump won the presidency in November 2016, he briefly considered whether to pick Romney as his secretary of state.
Responding to one of a series of written questions, Romney said in his speech he generally approved of Trump's agenda, but would not hesitate to call out the president if need be.
"I'm with the president's domestic policy agenda of low taxes, low regulation, smaller government, pushing back against the bureaucrats. By and large by the way his policies are very similar to those I campaigned on. ... I'm probably more of a deficit hawk than most Republicans."
"I'm not always with the president on what he might say or do, and if that happens I'll call'em like I see'em, the way I have in the past, but we can certainly work together and our agenda will be for the best interests of the people of Utah and the people of our country," he said.
On the thorny issue of immigration, Romney said he thought Trump had the right idea about the Dream Act, which lets children of immigrants born in the United States remain in the country.
“We have to recognize that we as a nation will honor the commitment made by a prior president. So I agree with the president (Trump). Let’s find a way to have these people be able to stay in our country."
Romney also said he supported Trump’s so-called four pillars of immigration and favored stronger border security and stopping chain migration and the lottery program.
Trump had lobbied Hatch to run for re-election in 2018 in what was viewed as an effort to prevent Romney from getting into the Senate. Trump and Romney spoke in January after Hatch announced his retirement, a White House official said.
Romney said predictions that Republicans would lose the 2018 mid-term elections were wrong because of growing paychecks. "We're going to hold the House and we're going to hold the Senate," he told the Republican audience.
After the speech, when asked about whether Trump had taken meddling by Russians in the 2016 election seriously enough, he told reporters: "I agree with the president that they didn't determine the outcome in any way but what they've done is unacceptable, I'm glad that they're being held accountable and believe that without question that Russians are trying to interfere with the principles of elected democracy and that's gotta end."
Romney, the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney, helped found the buyout firm Bain Capital and gained prominence after stepping in to lead the organizing committee for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics after a bribery scandal. He then served as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
Romney first sought the presidency in 2008 but lost the Republican nomination to Arizona Senator John McCain. Four years later, Romney won the party's nomination but was defeated by incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama.
Romney is the front-runner in the November election in Republican-dominated Utah. According to the Federal Election Commission, the field includes five other people, including a Salt Lake City councilwoman and a Marine Corps veteran.
The race will be Romney's second for the Senate. In 1994, he failed to oust Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy from his seat in Massachusetts.
Hatch, 83, the most senior Republican in the Senate, said last month he would not seek an eighth term.
Several high-profile Republicans expressed public support for Romney's bid, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was Romney's vice presidential running mate in 2012.
"His campaign has my unwavering support and the people of Utah will be getting an accomplished and decent man when they make him their next senator," Ryan said in a statement.
Romney has homes in Utah and California and Larry Meyers, an attorney who also is seeking the Republican nomination, questioned his ties to Utah.
"Unlike Massachusetts Mitt Romney, I'm from Utah, I support President Trump, and I am a conservative Republican," he said in a post on Facebook.
Romney had successful treatment for prostate cancer in 2017, a source close to him said in January.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Eric Walsh and Bob Lloyd in Provo, Utah; editing by Bill Trott)