Mitt Romney has declared himself the Republican presidential nominee and launched his general-election campaign against President Barack Obama, seeking to turn the president’s own promises against him and capitalize on voters’ disaffection with the economy.
The day after Romney used a five-state primary sweep to make clear he views the Republican race over, the party chairman labeled him the “presumptive nominee” and his closest remaining competitor in accruing delegates, Newt Gingrich, moved toward dropping his bid.
“Governor Romney’s strong performance and delegate count at this stage of the primary process has made him our party’s presumptive nominee,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
Priebus also said he is working to ensure the party and Romney’s campaign are “fully synchronized” into a “unified team to defeat Barack Obama.”
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, planned to end his candidacy next week and back Romney, according to a person familiar with his intentions.
“He’s talking to Governor Romney and the Republican National Committee about how he might be useful in the future,” said Gingrich adviser Bob Walker, a former U.S. representative from Pennsylvania.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, used words akin to a nomination acceptance speech as he spoke to supporters at a hotel in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, last night.
“After 43 primaries and caucuses, many long days and more than a few long nights, I can say with confidence -- and gratitude -- that you have given me a great honor and solemn responsibility,” he said.
He vowed to use his business experience to “lead us out of this stagnant Obama economy and into a job-creating recovery,” and declared “the beginning of the end of the disappointments of the Obama years.”
With his victories in the Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island primaries yesterday, Romney is moving to a new phase of his campaign in which he’s working to reintroduce himself to voters and begin a targeted one-on-one race against Obama, contrasting his economic plans with what he called the president’s “failed ” record.
Romney borrowed Obama’s own 2008 presidential campaign themes of hope and possibility in his comment last night, trying to turn them against the president by reminding voters of dashed expectations.
Speaking directly to people experiencing economic hardship, Romney said: “Hold on a little longer -- a better America begins tonight.”
Obama “dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change,” he said, referencing the backdrop of the president’s nomination acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver.
“But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for 3 1/2 years of President Obama?” Romney asked in a speech delivered in the state where he kicked off his campaign last June and scored his first primary victory on Jan. 10.
‘Campaign of Diversion’
“Because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions and distortions,” Romney said of Obama, adding that the tactic would fail.
“It’s still about the economy, and we’re not stupid,” he said, updating the line Democrat Bill Clinton’s campaign used in his successful 1992 challenge to unseat George H.W. Bush.
Romney also posed a series of questions recalling former President Ronald Reagan’s speech shortly before he won the 1980 election, in which he asked voters deciding whether to keep Democrat Jimmy Carter in the White House: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Obama’s re-election campaign defended the president’s economic record, calling Romney’s speech full of “distortions” and arguing that Obama has improved an economy ruined before his inauguration.
Romney is “proposing the same economic policies that got us into the economic crisis in the first place,” Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman, said in a statement.
Democrats are stepping up their criticism of Romney in efforts to deny him the chance to put the divisive Republican primary behind him, spotlighting his calls to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, his support for a Republican-authored measure to allow employers to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives and support for steep spending and tax cuts.
New Hampshire voters “will see through Mitt Romney’s return to New Hampshire for what it is -- an attempt to Etch-A-Sketch away his extreme positions on women’s rights, equal pay and tax breaks for millionaires at the expense of the middle class,” Pete Kavanaugh, Obama’s New Hampshire director, said in a memo circulated to reporters.
Romney was seeking to counter such criticism and appeal to independent and swing voters, including groups such as women, Hispanics and young people who polls have shown hold a dim view of him going into a matchup against Obama.
“Tonight is the start of a new campaign to unite every American who knows in their heart that we can do better,” Romney said.
He has already begun to shift his rhetoric and in some cases his positions with an eye toward appealing to a wider swath of voters and repairing his image with those alienated by the Republican primary. He softened his tone on student aid and illegal immigrants as he campaigned this week in Pennsylvania with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a leading potential vice presidential prospect.
Romney, who has been criticized for seeming aloof, used his New Hampshire speech to cast himself as open-minded and humble, telling voters he wants “to hear what’s on your mind, hear about your concerns, and I want to learn about your families. I want to know what you think we can do to make this country better, and what you expect from your next president.”
Romney, a co-founder of Bain Capital LLC who has estimated his net worth to be as much as $250 million, also put a positive spin on his wealth, which rivals in both parties have used to paint him as out of touch with ordinary Americans.
“You may have heard that I was successful in business; yep, that rumor’s true,” he said to laughter and cheers from his audience. “But you might not have heard that I became successful by helping start a business that grew from 10 people to hundreds of people.”
Romney’s victories brought his delegate haul to at least 844, according to the Associated Press, with 1,144 needed for the nomination. Gingrich has 137 delegates and Texas Congressman Ron Paul 79 in the AP tally.
While Romney hasn’t yet gained a direct endorsement from Rick Santorum -- who after emerging as his main Republican rival exited the race April 10 -- the former Pennsylvania senator said he was arranging a private meeting with him in the next week or two.
“It’s very clear that he’s going to be the Republican nominee and I’m going to be for the Republican nominee,” Santorum said in an interview on CNN, adding that his remarks were not intended as a formal endorsement.