WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney laid claim to the fiercely contested Republican presidential nomination Tuesday night with a fistful of primary triumphs and urged all who struggle in a shaky U.S. economy to "hold on a little longer; a better America begins tonight."
Connecticut and Rhode Island fell quickly into Romney's column on the first primary night since Rick Santorum conceded the nomination. Delaware soon followed, dashing Newt Gingrich's hopes of a late comeback.
The vote count was slower in New York and Pennsylvania.
After struggling for months to prevail over unexpectedly persistent rivals, the Republican nominee-in-waiting was eager to turn the political page.
"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 in excerpts of a speech to be delivered in New Hampshire.
Vowing to defeat President Barack Obama, he said that in the past three years, "we have seen hopes and dreams diminished by false promises and weak leadership. 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."
Opinion polls have long made the economy the top issue of the campaign, and 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 said in the excerpts released by his campaign.
The speech was meant to cap 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.