Bring on Obama: Romney gets set for real race to the White House

Bitter Republican battle is finally over as Gingrich concedes defeat over who should run for President

Hours after Mitt Romney essentially declared victory in the long and bitter battle to become the Republican presidential nominee for 2012, one of his last surviving rivals, Newt Gingrich, unofficially accepted the obvious and promised to suspend the campaign in the next few days.

The shift of gears that will see Mr Romney turning his fire exclusively on President Barack Obama came in a hotel ballroom in New Hampshire late on Tuesday after he swept primary elections in five states. While those results had not been in doubt, they gave the former Massachusetts Governor a springboard from which to declare the primary campaign over and the general election begun.

And so with the internecine Republican nomination struggle finally over, the US, more polarised politically than ever, will brace for a titanic clash of two candidates offering starkly contrasting visions of the future. It will be noisy and bloody with record sums of money spent to resolve it.

His speech in New Hampshire gave the clearest glimpse yet of Mr Romney's strategy: relentlessly to depict the incumbent as a disappointment, who has failed to deliver the promises of hope and change made in 2008. Top of the bill will be sluggish economic recovery. Channelling the winning campaign mantra of Bill Clinton 20 years ago, he declared: "It's still about the economy. And we're not stupid."

"Tonight is the start of a new campaign to unite every American who knows in their heart that we can do better," Mr Romney went on. "The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do. Tonight is the beginning of the end of the disappointments of the Obama years and it's the start of a new and better chapter that we will write together. This has already been a long campaign, but many Americans are just now beginning to focus on the choice before the country."

Any notion that Mr Romney would not be the challenger in November dissipated with the withdrawal from contention of Rick Santorum, whose ultra-conservative views had always made him a long-shot. Now, with Mr Gingrich gone, the only other man standing is Ron Paul, a libertarian with a following, mostly of young men, that is fervent but irrelevant.

Hitherto, Mr Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, had played the stubborn hanger-on, insisting he would take his fight all the way to the party convention in Tampa in August. But he had long risked looking more petulant than pertinent. As he heads for the exits he may also soon endorse Mr Romney. "I think you have to at some point be honest with what's happening in the real world, as opposed to what you'd like to have happened," he told supporters in North Carolina. "Governor Romney had a very good day yesterday... Now you have to give him some credit. This guy's worked six years, put together a big machine, and has put together a serious campaign."

Promising to provide further details of his plans in the "next couple of days", he added: "I think, obviously, that I would be a better candidate, but the objective fact is the voters didn't think that. And I also think it's very, very important that we be unified."

The outcome in November remains uncertain. While polls show Mr Romney begins his challenge with dismal likeability ratings, some indicate that were the election to be held today, he would be competitive against Mr Obama who remains burdened by the uncertain recovery.

Mr Obama will, to an extent, be hostage to the economic indicators, determined in part by factors beyond his control, like oil prices and the continuing debt dramas in Europe. He has advantages of course. Unchallenged, he has not endured a bruising primary contest and has a re-election campaign machine in Chicago that has been gearing up for nearly a year already.

That they offer wildly different styles was obvious even on Tuesday. While Mr Romney, who some call the "competent candidate", gave his "and-we're-off" address in New Hampshire, Mr Obama showed his "cool candidate" side, "slow-jamming" the news with late night television comedian Jimmy Fallon.

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