By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney clinched the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday with a win in the Texas primary, a triumph of endurance for a candidate who came up short four years ago and had to fight hard this year as voters flirted with a carousel of GOP rivals. According to the Associated Press count, Romney surpassed the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination by winning at least 88 delegates in the Texas primary.
The former Massachusetts governor has reached the nomination milestone with a steady message of concern about the U.S. economy, a campaign organization that dwarfed those of his GOP foes and a fundraising operation second only to that of his Democratic opponent in the general election, President Barack Obama.
"I am honored that Americans across the country have given their support to my candidacy and I am humbled to have won enough delegates to become the Republican Party's 2012 presidential nominee," Romney said in a statement.
"Our party has come together with the goal of putting the failures of the last three and a half years behind us," Romney said. "I have no illusions about the difficulties of the task before us. But whatever challenges lie ahead, we will settle for nothing less than getting America back on the path to full employment and prosperity."
Romney must now fire up conservatives who still doubt him while persuading swing voters that he can do a better job fixing the nation's struggling economy than Obama. In Obama, he faces a well-funded candidate with a proven campaign team in an election that will be heavily influenced by the economy.
"It's these economic indicators that will more or less trump any good or bad that Romney potentially got out of primary season," said Josh Putnam, an assistant political science professor at Davidson College who writes the political blog Frontloading HQ.
Romney spent Tuesday evening at a Las Vegas fundraiser with Donald Trump, who has been renewing discredited suggestions that Obama wasn't born in the United States. Romney says he believes Obama was born in America but has yet to condemn Trump's repeated insinuations to the contrary.
"If Mitt Romney lacks the backbone to stand up to a charlatan like Donald Trump because he's so concerned about lining his campaign's pockets, what does that say about the kind of president he would be?" Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, said in a statement.
Asked Monday about Trump's contentions, Romney said: "I don't agree with all the people who support me. And my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in." He added: "But I need to get 50.1 percent or more. And I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."
Trump told CNN in an interview Tuesday that he and Romney talk about other issues - jobs, China, oil and more - and not about the place of Obama's birth or the validity of his birth certificate. Asked how he viewed Romney's position that the president was indeed born in the U.S., Trump said: "He's entitled to his opinion, and I think that's wonderful. I don't happen to share that opinion and that's wonderful also."
Republicans won't officially nominate Romney until late August at the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla. Romney has 1,174 convention delegates.
He won at least 88 delegates in Texas with 64 left to be decided, according to early returns. The 152 delegates in Texas are awarded in proportion to the statewide vote.
Texas Republicans also voted in a Senate primary to choose a candidate to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst led state Solicitor General Ted Cruz and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert in early returns.
If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will go to a runoff in July. The nominee will be strongly favored to win in November in heavily Republican Texas.
Romney, 65, is clinching the presidential nomination later in the calendar than any recent Republican candidate - but not quite as late as Obama in 2008. Obama clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3, 2008, at the end of an epic primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Four years ago, John McCain reached the threshold on March 4, after Romney had dropped out of the race about a month earlier.
This year's primary fight was extended by a back-loaded primary calendar, new GOP rules that generally awarded fewer delegates for winning a state and a Republican electorate that built up several other candidates before settling on Romney.
Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Trump - all of them sat atop the Republican field at some point. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann peaked for a short time, too. But Romney outlasted them all, even as some GOP voters and tea party backers questioned his conservative credentials.
The primary race started in January with Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, narrowly edging Romney in the Iowa caucuses. Romney rebounded with a big win in New Hampshire before Gingrich, the former House speaker, won South Carolina.
Romney responded with a barrage of negative ads against Gingrich in Florida and got a much-needed 14-point win. Romney's opponents fought back: Gingrich called him a liar, and Santorum said Romney was "the worst Republican in the country" to run against Obama.
Gingrich and Santorum assailed Romney's work at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded, saying the firm sometimes made millions at the expense of workers and jobs. It is a line of attack that Obama has promised to carry all the way to November.
On Feb. 7 Santorum swept all three contests in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota, raising questions about Romney's status as the front-runner. After a 17-day break in the voting, Romney responded with wins in Arizona, Michigan and Washington state before essentially locking up the nomination on March 6, this year's version of Super Tuesday.
Romney has been in general-election mode for weeks, raising money and focusing on Obama, largely ignoring the primaries since his competitors dropped out or stopped campaigning. Santorum suspended his campaign April 10, and Gingrich left the race a few weeks later.
Both initially offered tepid endorsements of Romney, but on Sunday Gingrich gave a full-throated defense of Romney's campaign, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he was "totally committed to Romney's election."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul said on May 14 he would no longer compete in primaries, though his supporters are still working to gain national delegates at state conventions.
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who has been unaligned in the 2012 race, said the long, sometimes nasty primary fight should help Romney fine-tune his campaign organization so it can operate effectively in the general election. Galen doesn't, however, think it was relevant in toughening up Romney for the battle against Obama.
"Romney's been running for president for six years. He is as good a candidate as he's ever going to be," Galen said. "Whatever you say about him, he was better than everybody else in the race."
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report from Colorado.