WASHINGTON - Republican front-runner Mitt Romney coasted to victory on Tuesday night in five state primaries — a sweep that leaves Newt Gingrich to ponder whether it's finally time to drop out of the race.
"To all of the thousands of good and decent Americans I've met who want nothing more than a better chance, a fighting chance, to all of you, I have a simple message," Romney said in a rousing speech in New Hampshire, where he won his first primary in January.
"Hold on a little longer. A better America begins tonight."
An uncharacteristically realistic Gingrich said earlier this week that he would need "to take a deep look at what we are doing" if, as predicted, the primary results were dismal for his campaign. He reiterated that sentiment at a rally in North Carolina on Tuesday night.
"We're going to look realistically at where we're at," he said. "We are going to think carefully about how we can be the most helpful to this country."
He insisted, however, that he would continue to campaign in North Carolina in advance of the state's May 8 primary.
He also suggested, once again, that he might remain in the race until the party's convention in Tampa, Florida in August.
"We are going to go to Tampa fighting for an American energy independence plan," he said.
Gingrich had hoped to win Delaware, a state where he campaigned heavily. But Romney triumphed in Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Rhode Island.
The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had looked forward to a "bounce" from Delaware that might have prompted donors to take another look at him. Gingrich's campaign is currently more than US$4 million in debt, and even his biggest benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, has essentially told him to face reality.
Earlier in the day, Gingrich aligned himself with anti-same-sex marriage forces in North Carolina. A measure to ban same-sex marriage is also on the ballot on May 8.
Gingrich handily won South Carolina in January, and believes he has a chance of victory in the so-called Tar Heel State too. His campaign released a video on Tuesday morning of Gingrich outlining his position on the same-sex marriage ban.
"Marriage between a man and a woman is at the heart of our civilization," says Gingrich, who left two wives for other women and is now married to his third.
"It's a belief that is now under attack, yet it's at the very core of defining who we are. This is your chance to turn out and vote and vote for preserving America, and to vote for preserving a very basic institution."
Rick Santorum, meantime, whose recent departure from the race all but assured Romney the nomination, called his former rival "the right guy" to challenge Obama in November. In an appearance on CNN, however, he denied that was an official endorsement.
When he was running for president, Santorum accused Romney of being the worst possible Republican to face Obama, and repeatedly cast doubt on his rival's conservative bone fides.
Romney, for his part, delivered a rousing election address that had the ring of an unofficial nomination acceptance speech.
"We believe in America," he said to cheers. "We believe in ourselves. Our greatest day is ahead. We are, after all, Americans."
Gingrich was critical of Romney's decision to deliver such an address since several states have yet to hold primaries.
"I think it's a very substantial mistake for Gov. Romney to give a general election speech tonight in New Hampshire," Gingrich said in North Carolina. "He is not the nominee. I think it's a little insulting to people in these states."
Romney's big night on Tuesday brings him ever closer to the 1,144 delegates he needs to seal the nomination. Only Gingrich and libertarian congressman Ron Paul remain in the race, and they're nowhere near Romney in delegate counts.
Gingrich has said for months that his goal is to prevent Romney from getting to 1,144, and then win the nomination himself at a brokered convention.
He's never been able to explain, however, why delegates would flock to him in such an unlikely scenario given they've been ambivalent about him throughout primary season. He's won only two of 43 contests — Georgia and South Carolina.
Gingrich — who considers himself the intellectual in the Republican field — has said repeatedly that he has the upper hand over his rivals because he'd be able to out-debate U.S. President Barack Obama in a general election campaign.