Mitt Romney is poised to clinch the Republican presidential nomination after today’s Texas primary, a largely uncontested election which will formalise the former Massachusetts governor’s status as President Barack Obama’s general election challenger.
While Mr Romney’s nomination has been virtually assured for a month, the day marks the culmination of several years of work, dating back to his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid, and perhaps far earlier.
“It’ll be a big day tomorrow,” he told reporters on board his campaign plane yesterday evening. “I’m looking forward to the good news.”
But his focus today will be hundreds of miles north of Texas – he is scheduled to court voters and donors in Colorado and Nevada during a two-state swing punctuated by a Las Vegas fundraiser with celebrity real estate mogul Donald Trump.
The evening event, at the Trump International Hotel, comes amid fresh criticism from Republicans and Democrats over Mr Trump’s continued questioning of Mr Obama’s citizenship.
Mr Romney has not condemned Mr Trump’s false claims, offering a fresh example of the presidential contender’s reluctance to confront his party’s more extreme elements.
There have been other examples in recent weeks that underscore Mr Romney’s delicate push to win over sceptical conservatives while appealing to moderates and independents who generally deliver general election victories.
Asked yesterday to weigh in on Mr Trump’s support for the so-called birther movement, Mr Romney declined to condemn the billionaire’s latest suggestion that Mr Obama was born in Kenya.
“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,” Mr Romney told reporters on his chartered plane before flying from California to Colorado. “But I need to get 50.1% or more. And I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”
Polls suggest that the election between Mr Romney and Mr Obama will be very close, ultimately decided by several swing states, Colorado and Nevada among them.
Mr Romney will begin campaigning in the northern Colorado town of Craig today before flying to Las Vegas for an afternoon rally before the Trump fundraiser.
The Texas primary offers 152 delegates; Romney is just 58 delegates shy of the 1,144 needed to become the nominee. His Republican rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, have already endorsed him, while libertarian-leaning Texas Representative Ron Paul has stopped actively campaigning. Mr Gingrich is expected to attend the Trump fundraiser.
But Mr Romney’s meeting with Mr Trump may generate as much interest, or more, than his new grasp on the Republican nomination.
“I do not understand the cost benefit here,” conservative commentator George Will said at the weekend. “The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious, it seems to me.”
Mr Trump revived the false claims about Mr Obama’s birthplace late last week, citing a discredited story about a literary agency which mistakenly listed that Mr Obama was born in Kenya.
Mr Romney has been criticised on several occasions for failing to speak out against extreme rhetoric from his party. The reluctance stands in contrast to 2008 Republican presidential nominee and current Romney supporter Senator John McCain, who once corrected a supporter who called Mr Obama a Muslim.
Yesterday, Mr McCain appeared with Mr Romney in San Diego in what was billed as a Memorial Day service paying tribute to the nation’s war dead, not a campaign rally.
Mr McCain, a Vietnam veteran who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, said he believes Mr Romney “is fully qualified to be commander in chief”.
Without naming his general election rival, Mr Romney drew clear contrasts with Mr Obama on the issue of defence.
The Democratic president has proposed reducing the size of the military following the end of the US combat role in Iraq and plans to remove troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“We have two courses we can follow: One is to follow in the pathway of Europe, to shrink our military smaller and smaller to pay for our social needs,” Mr Romney said outside the Veterans Memorial Centre and Museum. “The other is to commit to preserve America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world.”
The White House and congressional Republicans have agreed to cut 487 billion US dollars in military spending over the next decade.
Even with Mr Obama’s proposed cuts in the military budget, the US would remain by far the world’s dominant military power. The Pentagon’s budget this year exceeds 600 billion US dollars. Closest rival China said this year its defence budget will top 100 billion US dollars for the first time, although the US claims China spends twice as much.
Across the country in Washington, Mr Obama marked the solemn holiday with remembrances at Arlington National Cemetery, and later at the Vietnam War Memorial marking the 50th anniversary of US involvement in Vietnam.
He noted that for the first time in nine years “Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq”, and the nation was winding down its role in the conflict in Afghanistan.
“After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of the new day on the horizon,” the president told an audience at the Arlington amphitheatre.
The candidates’ comments underscored the political and practical effects the presidential contest could have on America’s role in the world.