House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday decried ugliness and divisiveness in American politics, delivering a veiled but passionate rebuke to GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and the nasty tone of the presidential campaign.

"When passions flair, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn't accept ugliness as the norm," Ryan told an invited audience of congressional interns on Capitol Hill.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. smiles as he is introduced to speak to congressional interns on the state of American politics and the changing tenor of the current political discourse in the presidential race, Wednesday, March 23, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

"If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don't insult them into agreeing with us," he said.

The Wisconsin Republican never mentioned Trump's name or that of any other candidate, Republican or Democratic. But his targets were clear in a sometimes frightful campaign season that's featured insults, sucker-punches and near-riots as often as substantive policy debates.

"It did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way," Ryan said.

"We are slipping into being a divisive country," he said. "If we're going to keep this beautiful American experiment going we're going to have to stay unified."

Some of Ryan's comments nearly echoed remarks last week from President Barack Obama, who voiced dismay at the violence and "vulgar and divisive rhetoric" of this presidential race, and issued a plea for civility.

Still, Democrats wasted no time in criticizing Ryan's remarks, noting that while remaining officially neutral in his party's presidential primary, Ryan has repeatedly promised to back the eventual GOP nominee. The speaker has also avoided any outright denunciation of Trump even while criticizing several of the businessman's more extreme positions, such as barring Muslims from entering the country.

"Speaker Ryan's words will ring hollow until he backs them up with action and withdraws his support from Donald Trump," said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Ryan's outwardly neutral stance comes even as other GOP leaders have openly searched for ways to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination before or during the party's July convention in Cleveland. Ryan, his party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, has said he is not interested in becoming president and has dismissed growing talk of a contested convention that could turn into a free-for-all for the nomination.

Yet Ryan similarly claimed he never wanted to become speaker. He ended up with the job anyway after John Boehner, R-Ohio, was pushed out by conservatives last fall and a leadership vacuum resulted.

Ryan delivered his remarks Wednesday in the lofty hearing room of the Ways and Means Committee, which he previously chaired. The speech came on the final day of congressional work ahead of a two-week spring recess.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Sign up for the NJ1015.com Newsletter

Get the best of NJ1015.com delivered to your inbox every day.