Mitt Romney, whose first campaign for the White House ended in failure and disappointment, claimed the Republican nomination Tuesday night after a five-state sweep and turned his full focus to the general election with a charge that President Barack Obama has been a failure in office and a promise of a better America.
Before a boisterous crowd of supporters in New Hampshire, where he launched his campaign nearly a year ago, the former Massachusetts governor signaled that he would wage the fall campaign on the president's economic record.
"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," Romney said. "Hold on a little longer. A better America begins tonight."
Arguing that Obama has failed in office, Romney added: "Because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions and distractions and distortions. That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time, but not here and not now." Then, in a twist on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign message, he added: "It's still about the economy, and we're not stupid."
Romney described Obama as a president who had arrived in office to great fanfare, only to fall short. "The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do," he said.
The Obama campaign challenged Romney's characterizations of the president's record. "The title for Governor Romney's speech tonight should have been 'Back to the Future,' because he has proposed a return to the same policies that got us into the economic crisis in the first place," spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Arguing that the general election will be "a choice between two candidates, two records and two visions for the country," he added that Romney "would stack the deck against the middle class, pull the rug out from under growing sectors of our economy like manufacturing and clean energy, and promote giveaways to Americans who can afford to lobby for them."
Romney swept primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, rolling up big margins everywhere. Adding to his already sizable lead in delegates, he left his last remaining rivals — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas — with little rationale to continue.
Tuesday's victories still left Romney short of the 1,144 delegates needed to lock up the nomination. But after his defeat of his remaining opponents on one of the biggest primary days of the year, the rest of the contests will amount to a mopping-up effort rather than a series of tense or meaningful battles.
Romney's claim as the Republican nominee makes him the first Mormon to head a national party ticket in the country's history. Romney's religion proved not to be a significant obstacle in the nomination battle, despite the fact that many evangelical Christians regard the Mormon religion as a cult. Most polls show that the overwhelming percentage of Americans say it will not be a factor in their vote.
The only real drama left in the Republican nomination campaign is the question of when his last two opponents will decide to end their candidacies. Gingrich said he would reassess his candidacy if he did not win or come close to winning in Delaware. Given Romney's 30-point margin there, Gingrich's reassessment is likely to come quickly.
The general-election campaign effectively began two weeks ago after former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Romney's main challenger, dropped out of the race. Romney has yet to win Santorum's endorsement, though the two are supposed to meet early next month. In an interview Tuesday night with CNN's Piers Morgan, Santorum said he would support Romney as the nominee, saying that despite their differences during the nomination battle, the former governor would be far superior to Obama.
Despite the lack of drama, Tuesday's results served as a pivot point for Romney. In the coming days, he and his team will accelerate the process of consolidating the Republican base while moving quickly to take ownership of the party machinery at the Republican National Committee.
The general election begins with a number of polls showing Obama holding a narrow lead over Romney but with the president vulnerable because of dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy. Romney plans a sharpened attack on the president's record, as his remarks Tuesday night signaled.
Romney comes out of the primaries with a big deficit among Latino voters and running well behind the president among women. Campaign officials believe he will have an opportunity to reintroduce himself to the voters.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign senior adviser, said recently the beginning of the general election would amount to an "Etch A Sketch moment" for the candidate and the voters. Obama's advisers are prepared to jump on anything that smacks of a change in Romney's positions from the nomination battle. On Tuesday they seized on Romney's support for legislation that would prevent an increase in student loan interest rates, which Democrats said amounted to a shift in his position.
With his victories Tuesday, the process of integrating the Romney campaign and the RNC will begin. Campaign officials believe Obama has some significant structural advantages as the general election begins and are eager to move as quickly as possible to overcome them.
The Romney campaign has been cooperating informally with RNC officials in preparation for this moment, but Tuesday's date has long been circled on calendars as the moment when more formal cooperation probably would begin.
"The results of tonight will be very important as we move to accelerate the communication between the RNC and the Romney campaign," Sean Spicer, the RNC communications director, said shortly before the polls closed.
Officials in the national party and the Romney campaign expect the integration to go smoothly, in contrast to what happened four years ago when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., became the nominee. Two members of Romney's team who are expected to play important roles in the process of synchronizing operations are Brian Jones, a veteran of the McCain campaign, and Kevin Madden, a longtime adviser to the Romney operation.
Several top Romney campaign staffers previously worked at the RNC, including campaign manager Matt Rhoades, national political director Rich Beeson and communications director Gail Gitcho. At the RNC, research director Joe Pounder is a veteran of Romney's 2008 campaign, while Spicer, chief of staff Jeff Larsen and national political director Rick Wiley have relationships with their counterparts on the Romney campaign.
Romney does not have a close or long-standing relationship with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, but Romney advisers have said they are confident that Priebus shares Romney's interests and will work in concert with the campaign.
Over the next couple of weeks, the Romney campaign will grow from about 80 employees to around 400. At its Boston headquarters, aides are busy converting the empty first floor that once was a furniture showroom into a sea of cubicles, and the campaign has secured additional space in a nearby office building.
Although former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie recently joined the campaign as a senior adviser, most new hires will be at lower levels of the organization, according to senior campaign officials. The Romney campaign also will soon begin opening satellite offices and hiring operatives on the ground in key battleground states.
The candidate, meanwhile, is actively trying to consolidate support from Republicans, especially conservatives who had resisted his candidacy. He received a standing ovation last week in Arizona as he addressed the RNC and is scheduled to deliver the commencement address next month at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by the late television evangelist Jerry Falwell.