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Romney claims mantle of GOP nomination after sweeping 5 Northeast states

By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times –

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 Barack Obama.

Romney easily notched wins Tuesday night in Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and New York — contests whose outcomes seemed all but assured once his chief rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign two weeks ago.

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 during his 1980 presidential campaign — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — Romney asked Americans to consider Obama’s “sweeping promises of hope and change.”

“After the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama? …. We have seen hopes and dreams diminished by false promises and weak leadership,” Romney said at his election-night party in downtown Manchester. “To all of the thousands of good and decent Americans I’ve met who want nothing more than a better chance, a fighting chance … hold on a little longer. A better America begins tonight.”

The president’s campaign immediately sought to tie Romney to what it called the “failed” policies of former President George W. Bush and to paint him as a far-right conservative who is out of step with much of the country.

Earlier Tuesday, the president cited personal experience with high college costs as a way of jabbing his rival.

“I didn’t just get some talking points about this. I didn’t just get a policy briefing on this,” he told students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, according to a White House transcript. “Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes. Like I said, we didn’t come from wealthy families.”

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 Rep. Ron Paul, who has yet to win one, remained in the race even though neither had a mathematical chance of winning the nomination.

Speaking in Concord, N.C., Gingrich congratulated Romney on his victories: “It’s a night that he has worked hard for, for six years, and … if he does end up as the nominee, I think every conservative in this country has to be committed to defeating Barack Obama.”

He then signaled he would soon reassess his own effort. “Over the next few days we’re going to look realistically at where we’re at,” said Gingrich, whose campaign faces $4.3 million in debt and pressure from Republican leaders to quit.

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.

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, and Romney’s aides have pulled together a task force headed by longtime adviser 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 Rodham 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 last few weeks, Romney still faces major challenges within his party. His campaign has been working to win over reluctant conservatives as well as key leaders within the evangelical movement.

Romney’s favorability ratings slumped dramatically over the course of a bruising primary campaign, where he often eked out victories after pouring millions of dollars into advertising attacking his opponents. In a number of key states, 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 faces 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 convention address, and following Obama to Ohio to rebut his economic message.

In the short term, Romney has also redoubled his fundraising efforts, making them a major focus over the next few months. He will spend two days in New York and New Jersey later this week stocking his campaign treasury.

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