MANCHESTER, N.H. — With victories expected in five Northeastern primaries, Mitt Romney prepared to claim the mantle of Republican presidential nominee — though he has not officially clinched the race — and turn his focus to a general election showdown with President Obama.
Update, 6:32 p.m.: Romney won primaries in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware, and was expected to win New York — contests whose outcomes seemed all but assured two weeks ago when his chief rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign.
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.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of two primaries, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has built a loyal following but has yet to win a primary, remained in the race even though neither has a mathematical chance of winning the nomination.
In remarks prepared for delivery in New Hampshire, where his campaign began almost a year ago, Romney is to congratulate the other contenders for a hard-fought race and thank 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 will ask 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 will say, according to speech excerpts released by his campaign. “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.”
Gingrich has pledged to fight on until the party’s convention in Tampa, Fla., but he has drastically curtailed his schedule as his campaign grapples with $4.3 million in debt and pressure from a Republican leaders to bow out. His hopes of a resurgence were pinned on a win in Delaware.
Though the campaign says upcoming primaries in North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia could be fertile ground for Gingrich, aides said the candidate may begin reassessing his effort as soon as Wednesday depending on Tuesday night’s results.
At an appearance in Charlotte, N.C., Gingrich said Romney was presumptuous to begin his head-to-head campaign against Obama before all the primaries have been held.
“I think it’s a very substantial mistake for Gov. Romney to give a general election speech tonight in New Hampshire. He is not the nominee. I think it’s a little insulting to people in these states,” Gingrich told reporters, the Associated Press reported.
The movements by Gingrich and Paul have largely been a sideshow for the Romney campaign, which is now engaged in rapid build-out of 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 Romney’s running mate.
Tuesday’s primaries throughout the Northeast are expected to give Obama enough delegates to officially clinch the Democratic nomination for a second term. The milestone comes more than a month earlier than it did in 2008, when Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battled each other until the final primary contests in 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 last few weeks, Romney is still facing some major challenges within his party. His campaign has been working to win over reluctant conservatives and well as key leaders within the evangelical movement who favored other candidates.
Romney’s favorability ratings have slumped dramatically over the course of a bruising primary campaign, where he often notched his victories after millions of dollars of negative advertising attacking his opponents. In a number of key states like Ohio, polls show that he has grown less popular with voters the more they get to know him.
Though Romney has remained competitive with Obama in head-to-head polls, he is facing a deficit among key demographic groups including women and Latinos and has stepped up efforts to connect with those voters — though he has not unveiled any new policies to attract them.
Romney has begun a new effort to aggressively challenge the president at various locations throughout the country — delivering a speech last week near where Obama will deliver his Democratic convention address, and following to Obama to refute his economic message. Fundraising will also be a major focus for the former Massachusetts governor.
He will spend two days in New York and New Jersey later this week stocking his campaign treasury for the months ahead.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.
Original source: Romney to claim GOP nomination after primary victories