WASHINGTON: Mitt Romney laid claim to a fiercely contested Republican presidential nomination Tuesday night with five more primary triumphs and immediately set the tone for the general election campaign by attacking President Barack Obama over his handling of the economy.
After struggling for months to prevail over unexpectedly persistent rivals, the Republican nominee-in-waiting was eager to turn the political page and launch the campaign against Obama whom he accused of "false promises and weak leadership."
"The last few years have been the best Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do," Romney told cheering supporters.
The former Massachusetts governor spoke as he pocketed primary victories in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York in the first contests since his chief rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, conceded the nomination. He delivered his remarks to a national television audience from New Hampshire, the state where he won his first primary of the campaign and one of about a dozen states expected to be battlegrounds in the campaign for the White House.
Six months before the election, opinion polls show the economy to be the top issue by far in the race. The same surveys point toward a close contest, with several suggesting a modest advantage for Obama.
Obama won the presidency in 2008 in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and since then economic growth has rebounded slowly and joblessness has receded gradually while housing prices have continued to drop in many areas of the country.
Obama campaigned during the day in two other battleground states — North Carolina and Colorado — making the case that, however slowly, the economy is growing stronger.
"Our businesses have added more than 4 million jobs over the past two years, but we all know there's still too many Americans out there looking for work or trying to find a job that pays enough to cover the bills and make the mortgage," the president said.
"We still have too many folks in the middle class that are searching for that security that started slipping away years before the recession hit."
In an indication that Romney was treating the moment as something of an opening of the general election campaign, his speech seemed aimed at the millions of voters — non-conservatives and others — who have yet to pay close attention to the race for the White House. He urged all those struggling to "hold on a little longer; a better America begins tonight."
Romney blended biographical details, an attack on Obama and the promise of a better future, leaving behind his struggle to reassure conservative voters who have been reluctant to swing behind his candidacy.
"As I look around at the millions of Americans without work, the graduates who can't get a job, the soldiers who return home to an unemployment line, it breaks my heart," he said. "This does not have to be. It is the result of failed leadership and of a faulty vision."
Obama, unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, has a head start in organizing, fundraising and other elements of the general election campaign.
Already, he and aides are working to depict Romney and Republicans as pursuing new tax breaks for the wealthy while seeking to cut programs that benefit millions of victims of the recession as well as other lower-income Americans.
The president campaigned on two college campuses on Tuesday, pitching his proposal to prevent a scheduled increase in the interest rate on new student loans.
Romney, freed of serious primary competition, announced his own general support for the proposal, even though it appears a Republican-drafted budget in the House of Representatives envisioned no effort to change the pending increase.
Determined to make up for lost time, Romney has recently accelerated his fundraising, announced the beginning of a process to search for a vice presidential running mate and begun reaping endorsements from party officials who declined to do so in the heat of the primary campaign.
Santorum offered no endorsement in a televised appearance during the evening but said he expected to meet with Romney in the future, adding he would sit down with Romney's aides on Wednesday.
"Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee, and I'm going to support the nominee," the former Pennsylvania senator said Tuesday on CNN.
Romney was eager to leave the nominating campaign behind.
"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 said.
The nominating campaign that still had some loose ends, including the pursuit of delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.
Romney is still hundreds of delegates shy of a nominating majority, although he is far ahead of his most persistent rivals. There were 209 at stake in Tuesday's primaries, and he won at least 126, with his haul expected to grow higher.
That left him with 824 delegates of the 1,144 needed for the nomination, compared with 260 for Santorum, 137 for Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, and 79 for Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Romney could collect
Santorum suspended his campaign two weeks ago rather than risk losing a primary in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Gingrich, too, seemed to be heading toward the sidelines, although he said he intends to complete his plans for several days of campaigning in North Carolina.