Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney swept five Northeastern primaries Tuesday as he pivoted from a hard-fought GOP nomination battle and moved to challenge President Obama in November.
He declared the nomination battle over at a celebration in New Hampshire, the site of his first primary victory in January and a battleground state in the general election.
"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," he told a cheering crowd in Manchester. "And, together, we will win on Nov. 6th."
Romney glided to victory in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The biggest election night since Super Tuesday was friendly territory for the former Massachusetts governor, with more moderate Republicans and fewer evangelical Christians than in the Sun Belt states where he has struggled.
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 convention.
Even after Tuesday's delegates are allocated, Romney will remain short of the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. But he was poised to claim virtually all of the 231 delegates from the five states holding contests Tuesday. No competitor is in a position to challenge him.
Republican voters are uniting behind him. The Gallup daily poll shows 88% of Republicans backing Romney, comparable to the 91% of Democrats supporting Obama.
The five-day rolling survey, which Romney had led last week, on Tuesday showed the president ahead, 49%-42%.
"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 on Tuesday rallied the young people who helped propel his 2008 victory with speeches at the University of Colorado and the University of North Carolina- both swing states in the fall. He visits a third swing state today 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, using language 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 that would provide legal status to some young illegal immigrants.
In his speech Tuesday, Romney never used the word "conservative." But he said "economy" five times - hammering Obama for "false promises and weak leadership" that have left many Americans out of work and short on hope.
While Romney warned that the president would run "a campaign of diversions, distractions and distortions," he offered a twist on Bill Clinton's famous campaign slogan from 1992: "It's still about the economy - and we're not stupid."
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who suspended his presidential bid this month, said on CNN he was meeting with Romney advisers today.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich told supporters in Concord, N.C., on Tuesday that he was "going to look realistically at where we're at," though he said he would continue this week's events. His campaign is more than $4.3 million in debt.
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."