SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mitt Romney assumed the mantle of GOP standard bearer in a symbolic visit here Friday to a gathering of Republican Party officials, framing the general election contest against President Obama even as he avoided laying direct claim to the Republican nomination.
At a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Scottsdale, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party’s 2008 nominee, enthusiastically embraced Romney and exhorted Republicans not to “let an hour go by” that they are not working to mobilize voters to support Romney in November.
When Romney took the stage here, he spoke of the Republican primaries as history. The former Massachusetts governor thanked his GOP opponents, even reading aloud a list of their names, and commended them for the campaigns they ran.
“Each is going to play a vital role in making sure we win in November,” Romney said. But he made no mention of the fact that two of them, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, remain active candidates.
Instead, Romney spoke of his intensifying battle against Obama.
“We have to make sure that we get off this road where more and more people are stuck into poverty, where it’s tougher and tougher to be in the middle-class, where gasoline prices go higher and higher, where the unions are driving what’s happening in our schools,” Romney said. “This is a very difficult road we’re on. It’s time we’re gonna get off it.”
Romney recalled meeting Obama at a dinner four or five years ago in Washington. “I think he’s a nice person,” Romney said. “I just don’t think we can afford him any longer. I don’t think the American people can afford to have Barack Obama as their president.”
Although Romney did not claim victory or declare himself the nominee, the RNC gathering, held at a posh resort here on the outskirts of Phoenix, took on the feel of a coronation. Behind the scenes, senior Romney campaign aides huddled Thursday and Friday with RNC officials to informally discuss the eventual merging of their efforts and joint planning for the August Republican National Convention in Tampa.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus did not identify Romney as the nominee, but said in introducing Romney at Friday’s luncheon, “We want to welcome you in a formal way to a great family here.”
The job of crowning Romney the nominee fell to McCain, a one-time rival who endorsed Romney in January in New Hampshire and has campaigned at his side since.
“I am so gratified to see our party coming together in a solid team that is going to elect him president of the United States,” McCain said. He added, “I am most proud to have Mitt as out standard bearer.”
McCain also offered a full-throated defense of Romney’s record as a private equity executive at Bain Capital. “There’s a lot of people who like to attack people who get wealthy, but the fact is that Bain Capital, under the stewardship of Mitt Romney — they went out and they saved companies,” McCain said.
And he praised Romney’s work running the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, noting that “yes, he had to fire people,” but that they were “the most successful Olympics in the history of this nation thanks to the leadership of Mitt Romney.”
Against this backdrop, party leaders in some Southern states who had long resisted rallying behind Romney began acknowledging the near certainty that he has effectively won the nomination. Reta Hamilton, a national committeewoman from Arkansas, who had backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said she decided Friday morning to endorse Romney because “it’s time now that we come together and face the real foe.”
Glenn McCall, a national committeeman from South Carolina, a state whose primary Gingrich won, said he was backing Romney, but said it was too soon for a coronation. “It’s not over yet,” he said. “We still have Representative Paul and Speaker Gingrich in it, so he still has to work for it.”
Among the few remaining hold-outs is Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Georgia Republican Party. She said she is obliged to support Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress, because he won the state’s primary. She said she will remain with him as long as he stays in the race. But, she added, “I am supportive of uniting around our candidate when we get one.”