WASHINGTON // It took longer than he expected, but Mitt Romney has finally become the inevitable Republican presidential nominee.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania governor and Mr Romney's closest rival for the nomination, is out of the way, having ended his campaign on Tuesday. Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the US House of Representatives, and Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, while still running, are all but irrelevant. Mr Romney will be the Republican choice to face Barack Obama in the November election.
"Now the candidates can train all their guns at each other," said Jeffrey Weiss, a Republican pollste in Washington.
It will be a drawn-out battle. The president and his Republican opponent have seven months to fight it out, much longer than the 2008 presidential elections when the race for the Democratic nomination between Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton went down to the wire.
The sniping has already started. Mr Obama got in an early shot yesterday at the White House, when touting his tax plan that he said would help the American middle class and shrink the US budget deficit. He didn't mention Mr Romney by name, but left little doubt whom he was talking about with his reference to "those who object to a tax plan that is fair".
Mr Romney opposes the plan, which seeks to raise taxes on America's highest earners. But according to tax forms he reluctantly released this year under pressure from his Republican rivals, Mr Romney, a multimillionaire, has benefited from some of the tax loopholes that Mr Obama's plan aims to eliminate.
The Obama campaign will hope that American voters will not take kindly to a rich candidate who opposes a tax increase on those earning more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) a year.
To drive home the point, Mr Obama's campaign also released a video yesterday that included what it called some "unforgettable" moments from the Republican primary race. Featuring such quotes as "Corporations are people", "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" and "Let Detroit go bankrupt", the video - a two-minute selection of some of Mr Romney's statements on the campaign trail - tries to portray the Republican presidential hopeful as an ultraconservative candidate serving big corporations and Wall Street banks.
On Tuesday, moments after Mr Santorum announced he was quitting the race, Mr Romney went on the offensive, calling Mr Obama a weak president, too keen to apologise for America abroad, and a "European-style socialist" who preferred a "government-centred society".
"The right course for America is not to divide America," Mr Romney told a Republcian dinner in Pennsylvania.
"That's what he's doing," he said of the president. "His campaign is all about finding Americans to blame and attack and find someone to tax more, someone who isn't giving, isn't paying their fair share."
With the unemployment high and the economic recovery still sputtering, Mr Obama's approval rating has steadily declined since he assumed the presidency. From a high in the 60s, yesterday it languished at just under 45 per cent, according to Gallup's daily ratings.
Nevertheless, Mr Obama still leads Mr Romney by an average of 5.3 percentage points, according to data compiled by RealClearPolitics from six recent national polls, and one of Mr Romney's key challenges will be how to present himself as a candidate, said Mr Weiss.
Predicting a largely negative campaign, Mr Weiss suggested Mr Romney needed to stake out clearly "not just why Obama should not be re-elected, but why Romney should be president".
For a candidate who has failed to connect with his own party's base during the primaries that might be a tough task. Although Mr Weiss said the Republican Party would now coalesce behind Mr Romney. he has to prove he did not merely prevail by outspending his rivals, as the Obama campaign has been quick to suggest.
"It's no surprise that Mitt Romney finally was able to grind down his opponents under an avalanche of negative ads. But neither he nor his special-interest allies will be able to buy the presidency with their negative attacks," said Jim Messina, an Obama campaign official in a statement on Tuesday.