Mitt Romney launched his campaign as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and looked set to sweep five primaries on Tuesday, turning his attention to the November general election showdown against President Barack Obama and declaring a better America begins tonight.
In a speech in New Hampshire, Romney outlined the basics of his campaign argument against Obama, saying the president had failed to deliver on his promises of hope and change during the 2008 election and asking Americans if they were better off now.
What do we have to show for three-and-a-half years of President Obama? Romney asked. Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job?
Romney, a former head of a private-equity firm, said Obama's economic leadership had seen hopes and dreams diminished and promised he would offer a better chance to those who are struggling.
In the America I see, character and choices matter. And education, hard work, and living within our means are valued and rewarded, he said.
And poverty will be defeated, not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that is taught by parents, learned in school, and practiced in the workplace.
Obama and Romney have already engaged in heavy campaign combat in recent weeks, and that will likely intensify in the six months before the November 6 presidential election.
Romney effectively won the Republican race on April 10 when his top rival, Rick Santorum, suspended his White House campaign, but the speech in the general election battleground state of New Hampshire will be the first time he has claimed victory.
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 honour and solemn responsibility, Romney said.
The claim of victory came as Romney was expected to sweep to wins in five Northeastern states - Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island - which have a combined 231 delegates.
NBC News projected he had won Connecticut and Rhode Island and CNN projected he would win Delaware, but results in the other states were not in yet.
The wins would move Romney, who entered the night with 695 delegates, closer to the 1,144 he needs to formally clinch the nomination, a milestone that is still weeks away.
GINGRICH TO QUIT?
The primaries on Tuesday could spell the end for another remaining rival, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich. He said on Monday he would reassess his candidacy if he did not win the primary in Delaware, where he had campaigned heavily in recent weeks.
Gingrich has won only two primary contests - in South Carolina and in Georgia, which he represented in Congress - and his campaign is deep in debt, but he has been hanging on to keep pressing Romney on conservative issues.
The other remaining candidate, libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul, said again on Monday that he would not drop out of the race even after Romney clinches the nomination.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, enters the general election campaign bruised from a bitter primary battle with a series of challengers who questioned the sincerity of his conservative views.
He is faced with the task of consolidating support from conservatives who distrust him for the more moderate positions he took as governor of liberal Massachusetts, particularly his support for a healthcare overhaul that became a precursor to Obama's federal plan.
At the same time, he must turn toward winning over undecided independent voters who are likely to decide the election, and bolster his lagging support among women, Hispanics and young people.
Romney is also launching a search for a vice presidential running mate. Included on his long list of potential No. 2s is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who campaigned with him in Pennsylvania on Monday.
In spite of those challenges, Romney opens the general election campaign in a relatively strong position, with national opinion polls showing a tight race with Obama.
Obama, who has the advantages of incumbency, is well-liked by Americans but there are deep doubts about his handling of the economy and anger over high gasoline prices that 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.
Obama visited two battleground states on Tuesday, North Carolina and Colorado, to appeal for support from young voters with a call to make education more affordable.
He stressed his modest background and the student loans he needed for college, references that seemed designed as a swipe at the multimillionaire Romney.
Given the stakes, the presidential campaign will likely be negative as the two sides battle through TV and radio ads. Both candidates and the outside groups that support them are building campaign accounts 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.
(Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom)