Mitt Romney and wife Ann wave at an election night rally in Manchester, N.H.,… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sweeping five contests in Northeastern primary states, Mitt Romney claimed the mantle of Republican presidential nominee — though he has not officially clinched the race — and turned his focus to a general election showdown with President Obama.
Romney easily notched wins Tuesday night in Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and New York — contests whose outcomes seemed all but assured when his chief rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign two weeks ago.
The former Massachusetts governor entered the day just shy of 700 delegates, with 209 at stake Tuesday and 1,144 needed to cinch the nomination.
In remarks in New Hampshire, where his campaign began almost a year ago, Romney thanked his supporters for “a great honor and solemn responsibility.”
In an echo of Ronald Reagan’s question — “Are you better off than you were four years ago” — during his 1980 presidential campaign, Romney asked Americans to consider Obama’s “sweeping promises of hope and change.”
“After we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?” Romney said at his election night party in downtown Manchester. “…We have seen hopes and dreams diminished by false promises and weak leadership. Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired, and many of those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working harder for less.
“To all of the thousands of good and decent Americans I’ve met who want nothing more than a better chance, a fighting chance, to all of you, I have a simple message: Hold on a little longer. A better America begins tonight.”
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, countered that Romney would bring back “the failed policies” of former President George W. Bush. “President Obama inherited an economy that was on the brink. Thanks to his strong leadership, he prevented us from sinking into a second great depression, and has begun to turn things around,” she said in a statement.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of two primaries, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has yet to win one, remained in the race even though neither has a mathematical chance of winning the nomination.
Gingrich had pledged to fight on until the party’s convention in Tampa, but he has drastically curtailed his schedule as his campaign grapples with $4.3 million in debt and pressure from Republican leaders to exit the race. His hopes of a resurgence slipped away with Romney’s win in Delaware, where he had campaigned intensively.
Gingrich did not drop his bid but acknowledged his straits during an election night speech in Concord, N.C. While he said he would continue his bid to the party convention in August in Tampa, he said he would reassess his presidential bid in coming days.
He pledged to attend the 23 events in North Carolina he has scheduled for this week, aligning with what a campaign aide said earlier on Tuesday – that if Romney crushed the former House Speaker in Delaware, he would consider ending his bid. And in a rare move for Gingrich, who tends to be combative on election nights that do not go his way, he praised Romney during his speech Tuesday night.
Santorum, meanwhile, came as close to an endorsement as he has so far. “It’s very clear that he is going to be the Republican nominee and I’m going to be for the Republican nominee,” Santorum told CNN host Piers Morgan during a discussion of whether he was going to endorse Romney.
The movements by the other Republican candidates have largely been a sideshow for the Romney campaign, which is now rapidly building out its organization at its Boston headquarters and in key primary states. The campaign has established a joint finance committee to raise money with the Republican National Committee, which has been staffing up in swing states in preparation for the fall campaign. Romney’s aides have also pulled together a task force headed by longtime advisor Beth Myers to begin the search for a running mate.
Tuesday's primaries are expected to give Obama enough delegates to officially clinch the Democratic nomination. The milestone comes more than a month earlier than it did in 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton battled each other until early June.
While the fall campaign has already gotten off to a brisk start with the Romney and Obama campaigns engaging on a daily basis over the past few weeks, Romney still faces major challenges within his party. His campaign has been working to win over reluctant conservatives and well as key leaders within the evangelical movement.