The suspense gone, Mitt Romney glided into five primaries on Tuesday as the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, piling up national convention delegates while commanding the spotlight to sharpen his appeal for the campaign against President Barack Obama.
Romney was readying a prime-time primary night speech titled "A Better America Begins Today," to be delivered in New Hampshire, one of a dozen or so states expected to be battlegrounds in the fall.
There were 209 delegates at stake Tuesday in primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware, the first contests since former rival Rick Santorum conceded the Republican race to Romney.
Romney began the day with 698 delegates of the 1,144 needed for the nomination, compared with 260 for Santorum, 137 for Newt Gingrich and 75 for Ron Paul.
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, but first he wanted to see the outcome of the primary in Delaware, where he has campaigned in recent days and has pocketed a few endorsements. Jackie Cushman Gingrich, his daughter, said the former House speaker intended to reassess his debt-strapped candidacy on Wednesday.
The nomination in hand, Romney has begun focusing his attention on Obama in recent days, campaigning in key battleground states, appointing an aide to oversee his search for a vice presidential running mate and accelerating his fundraising for the fall.
On Monday, he offered support for Obama's call for legislation to prevent an increase in the interest rate on some student loans. In a second move toward the middle, he said his campaign was reviewing legislation to let young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents apply for non-immigrant visas.
Under a measure being drafted by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential ticket-mate for Romney, the immigrants affected by the legislation would be allowed to study or work in the United States but would not have a special path to citizenship.
At the same time, Romney is slowly accumulating the delegates to ratify his nomination at the party convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer.
He picked up 12 delegates at congressional district conventions over the weekend in Missouri, a state Santorum once planned to contest heavily in hopes of blocking Romney's path to victory.
Romney's immediate tasks are many. He must consolidate conservatives behind him and begin taking steps to attract independent voters, who are likely to decide the election. He needs to bolster lagging support among women voters, Hispanics and young people.
He is also building a much larger staff geared toward the general election after relying on a close coterie of loyal insiders for months.
And he is searching for a vice presidential running mate from among several contenders such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who campaigned with him in Pennsylvania on Monday.
In spite of his challenges, Romney begins the campaign in a strong position. National opinion polls show a tight race developing between him and Obama.
Obama, with all the advantages of the incumbency, is well-liked by Americans but there are deep doubts about his handling of the U.S. economy and anger over high gasoline prices which may, however, be trending downward.
He must convince Americans that his prescriptions for the sluggish economy will lead not just to a stock market gains, but to real job growth among the dispirited middle class.
Given the stakes, the campaign will likely be overwhelmingly negative as the two sides battle through TV and radio ads. Both candidates and outside groups that support them are building campaign war chests likely to reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Their goal is to portray the other side as being out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans and unable to solve intractable problems from debt to deficits to caring for an aging population.
Tuesday could be the end of the line for former House of Representatives Speaker Gingrich, whose campaign is out of steam and deep in debt. He has been hanging on to keep pressing Romney on conservative issues.
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