Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Rick Santorum cleared the way for Mitt Romney to claim victory in the long and hard-fought battle for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, giving up his "against all odds" campaign as Romney's tenacious conservative rival.
Santorum's withdrawal sets up what is sure to be an acrimonious seven-month fight for the presidency between Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Democratic President Barack Obama, with the certain focus on the still-troubled economy.
In a preview of the personal attacks that lie ahead, Obama's campaign manager declared that Americans neither like nor trust Romney, and the Romney camp said the fight had always been about defeating Obama, not GOP rivals.
"This game is a long, long, long way from over," Santorum said as he bowed out of the contest with Romney. "We are going to continue to go out there and fight to make sure that we defeat President Barack Obama."
Santorum had been facing a loss in the April 24 primary in Pennsylvania, the state he represented in Congress for 16 years, and where the Romney campaign planned nearly $3 million in ads against him.
Whether or not there are lingering hard feelings, Santorum didn't mention Romney, who has been the front-runner for months and was far ahead in the race for the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the party's convention in August.
Romney has tried to ignore his GOP rivals and campaign against the president since he first entered the race last year with a pitch focused on the recovering but still frail economy. But Romney was forced to go after Santorum and former house Speaker Newt Gingrich after Santorum showed strength in Iowa and Gingrich in South Carolina early this year. Then Santorum kept on, memorably winning three Southern primaries.
Romney's campaign has long been the best funded, the best organized, and the most professionally run of the GOP contenders.
Despite Santorum's refusal to get out of the race earlier — and Gingrich hasn't officially dropped out yet — Romney had already begun looking ahead with a unifying message. He told Pennsylvania supporters last week that "we're Republicans and Democrats in this campaign, but we're all connected with one destiny for America."
And Obama has turned squarely to face Romney, recently assailing him by name, as his campaign has worked to paint Romney as a rich elitist who will win the nomination only because he buried his opponents under millions of dollars in negative advertising.
"Neither he nor his special interest allies will be able to buy the presidency with their negative attacks," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Tuesday after Santorum left the race. "The more the American people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him and the less they trust him."
In response, a Romney campaign spokeswoman insisted that "for Mitt Romney, this race has always been about defeating President Obama, and getting Americans back to work."
But Romney still has had to wage a drawn-out nomination fight that's seen candidate after candidate try to block his path. That has highlighted Romney's problem with the most conservative voters. As recently as last week, activists huddled with Santorum to try and figure out how to keep him in the race, and Gingrich was still insisting Tuesday that his campaign represents the "last stand for conservatives" as he vowed to stay in the race until the convention.
Claiming a victory of sorts, Santorum said Tuesday, "Against all odds, we won 11 states, millions of voters, millions of votes."
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