Jim Cole, AP
Mitt Romney, whose first campaign for the White House ended in failure and disappointment, claimed the Republican nomination Tuesday night after a five-state sweep and turned his full focus to the general election with a charge that President Barack Obama has been a failure in office and a promise of a better America.
Before a boisterous crowd of supporters in New Hampshire, where he launched his campaign nearly a year ago, the former Massachusetts governor signaled that he would wage the fall campaign on the president's economic record.
"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," Romney said. "Hold on a little longer. A better America begins tonight."
Arguing that Obama has failed in office, Romney added: "Because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions and distractions and distortions. That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time, but not here and not now." Then, in a twist on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign message, he added: "It's still about the economy, and we're not stupid."
Romney described Obama as a president who had arrived in office to great fanfare, only to fall short. "The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do," he said.
The Obama campaign challenged Romney's characterizations of the president's record. "The title for Governor Romney's speech tonight should have been 'Back to the Future,' because he has proposed a return to the same policies that got us into the economic crisis in the first place," spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Arguing that the general election will be "a choice between two candidates, two records and two visions for the country," he added that Romney "would stack the deck against the middle class, pull the rug out from under growing sectors of our economy like manufacturing and clean energy, and promote giveaways to Americans who can afford to lobby for them."
Romney swept primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, rolling up big margins everywhere. Adding to his already sizable lead in delegates, he left his last remaining rivals — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas — with little rationale to continue.
Tuesday's victories still left Romney short of the 1,144 delegates needed to lock up the nomination. But after his defeat of his remaining opponents on one of the biggest primary days of the year, the rest of the contests will amount to a mopping-up effort rather than a series of tense or meaningful battles.
Romney's claim as the Republican nominee makes him the first Mormon to head a national party ticket in the country's history. Romney's religion proved not to be a significant obstacle in the nomination battle, despite the fact that many evangelical Christians regard the Mormon religion as a cult. Most polls show that the overwhelming percentage of Americans say it will not be a factor in their vote.
The only real drama left in the Republican nomination campaign is the question of when his last two opponents will decide to end their candidacies. Gingrich said he would reassess his candidacy if he did not win or come close to winning in Delaware. Given Romney's 30-point margin there, Gingrich's reassessment is likely to come quickly.
The general-election campaign effectively began two weeks ago after former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Romney's main challenger, dropped out of the race. Romney has yet to win Santorum's endorsement, though the two are supposed to meet early next month. In an interview Tuesday night with CNN's Piers Morgan, Santorum said he would support Romney as the nominee, saying that despite their differences during the nomination battle, the former governor would be far superior to Obama.
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