Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney swept five Northeastern primaries Tuesday as he pivoted from a hard-fought GOP nomination battle and prepared to challenge President Obama in November.
He declared the nomination battle over at a celebration in New Hampshire, the site of his first victory in January's primary and a battleground state in November.
"After 43 primaries and caucuses, many long days and not a few long nights, I can say with confidence and gratitude that you have given me a great honor and solemn responsibility," Romney told a cheering crowd at a Manchester hotel. "And together, we will win on Nov. 6th."
Romney glided to a victories in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The biggest election night since Super Tuesday, it was friendly territory for the former Massachusetts governor, with more moderate Republicans and fewer evangelical Christians than in the Sunbelt states where he has struggled.
The title of his victory speech: "A Better America Begins Tonight."
It has taken longer for Romney to hold a credible claim on the nomination than any GOP presidential contender since 1976, when the contest between President Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan went all the way to the Republican National Convention.
Even after Tuesday's delegates are allocated, Romney will remain short of the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination at the GOP convention in Tampa in August. But he was poised to claim nearly all of the 231 delegates from the five states holding contests Tuesday, and no competitor is in a position to seriously challenge him.
Republican voters already are uniting behind him. The Gallup daily poll shows 88% of Republicans backing Romney, comparable to the 91% of Democrats supporting Obama. Independents split 45% Obama, 43% Romney.
The five-day rolling survey, which Romney had led last week, on Tuesday showed the president ahead, 49%-42%.
A steady progression of party leaders also has endorsed him, joined on Monday by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a rival from the 2008 presidential race.
"Look, Romney is the inevitable nominee presumptive is the word you all use and it gets the monster even closer," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, referring to the total number of delegates needed for nomination. When Madonna attended a Lancaster County GOP dinner a week ago, the socially conservative crowd "was not wildly enthusiastic but kind of resigned that he's going to be the nominee, and they were on board."
Both Romney and Obama seem fully in general-election mode. The president rallied the young people who helped propel his 2008 victory with speeches Tuesday at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of North Carolina in Charlotte both swing states in the fall. He visits a third swing state Wednesday with a speech at the University of Iowa.
Romney, meanwhile, has begun staking out positions appealing to independent voters in the middle. On Monday, he endorsed the White House proposal to extend temporarily a low interest rate on some federal student loans congressional Republicans oppose it in rhetoric that was more supportive than statements he made during the primaries about federally subsidized student loans. Taking a more moderate tone on immigration, he also said he would study a proposal by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for a Republican version of the DREAM Act, designed to provide legal status to some young illegal immigrants.
In Tuesday's victory speech, he hammered Obama for "false promises and weak leadership" that have left Americans struggling. "Because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions," Romney said, then offered a twist on Bill Clinton's famous campaign slogan from the 1992 presidential campaign: "It's still about the economy and we're not stupid."
Romney's final serious competitor for the nomination, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign earlier this month, avoiding the possibility of a defeat in the state he once represented in Congress. In an interview on CNN, Santorum said he would meet with Romney advisers Wednesday and with the candidate himself next week.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has campaigned extensively in Delaware, told a crowd of supporters in Concord, N.C., that he was "going to look realistically at where we're at," though he said he would continue campaign events this week. His campaign is now more than $4.3 million in debt.
The other remaining contender, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, said he had no plans to quit. "You don't quit because you happen to be behind," he said on CNBC. "Maybe somebody will stumble."
By Susan Page, USA TODAY