DAVID ESPO, Associated Press
KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney laid claim to a fiercely contested Republican presidential nomination Tuesday night with a fistful of primary triumphs, then urged all who struggle in a shaky U.S. economy to "hold on a little longer, a better America begins tonight."
Eager to turn the political page to the general election, Romney accused President Barack Obama of "false promises and weak leadership." He said, "Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired, and many of those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working harder for less."
The former Massachusetts governor spoke as he pocketed primary victories in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware and Pennsylvania in the first contests since Rick Santorum conceded the nomination. New York was expected to follow. 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 summer and fall 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 the incumbent.
Obama won the presidency in 2008 in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, 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.
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 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."
Romney spoke dismissively of the president's tenure in office. "Government is at the center of his vision. It dispenses the benefits, borrows what it cannot take and consumes a greater and greater share of the economy," he said.
He added that if the president's hard-won health care law is fully installed, "government will continue to control half the economy, and we will have effectively ceased to be a free enterprise society."
By contrast, he said, "I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents..."
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.
Romney posed a series of rhetorical questions designed to lead voters to his side.
"Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it earlier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement?" he asked.
"Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump?"
At each question, his partisan audience shouted, "No."
The nominating campaign that still had some loose ends, including the pursuit of national convention delegates.
Romney is still more than 400 Republican National Convention 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.
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 more 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.