WASHINGTON: They didn't come with a flourish or in a much-plugged TV appearance, but endorsements by the top two Republicans in the US Congress finally arrived Tuesday for Mitt Romney, the party's all-but-certain nominee.
Sensing the inevitability of a Romney victory in the battle to see which Republican squares off against President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner ended his neutrality, saying he'd be "proud" to help him win the November election.
"It's clear now Mitt Romney is going to be our nominee," Boehner told reporters following a bruising, months-long nominations race.
"And I will be proud to support Mitt Romney and do everything I can to help him win."
A few hours later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell followed suit.
"I support governor Romney for president of the United States," McConnell told reporters.
"He's going to be the nominee," he said, noting how the party "is in the process of unifying behind him."
Two weeks ago McConnell described Romney as an "outstanding" nominee who could prevent an Obama re-election.
But he had stopped short of a direct endorsement at the time, arguing that people in Wisconsin, Maryland and the US capital Washington, which were voting that week, did not need his help in choosing their candidate.
Romney won all three of those contests, and with his main challenger Rick Santorum dropping out of the race, it became clear that Romney was going to be the nominee.
"We're all behind him, and looking forward to the fall campaign which is actually underway," McConnell said Tuesday.
"I think it's going to be an incredibly close and hard-fought race."
Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader who spoke minutes after McConnell, seamed to revel in the campaign ahead as he made light of McConnell's endorsement, quipping to reporters: "I'm supporting the winner of the next election in November -- Barack Obama!"
Boehner had previously taken a neutral stance in the Republican race, citing fair opportunities for each candidate and his role as chairman of the national convention in late August, but his backing of Romney was now clear.
"Mitt Romney has a set of economic policies that can put Americans back to work, and frankly, contrast sharply with the failed economic policies of President Obama," said Boehner, who has repeatedly clashed with the White House incumbent on economic policy.
Several other leading party figures in Congress, including House majority leader Eric Cantor and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, had thrown their support behind Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, weeks ago.
Distinctly absent in Romney's endorsement column, however, is Santorum himself, and that could prove difficult down the road for Romney as he seeks to win over skeptical core conservatives like evangelical voters who supported Santorum more than Romney.
The religious ex-senator from Pennsylvania made no mention of Romney in his speech announcing his capitulation, leading to speculation there was bad blood between the rivals, who frequently clashed during the campaign.
Although two other candidates, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Libertarian congressman Ron Paul, remain in the Republican race, neither has a real chance of winning.
Romney has this month switched his campaign focus to attacking Obama rather than other Republican contenders, a move that has become more pronounced since last week's withdrawal by Santorum.
On Tuesday Romney, campaigning in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, earned the endorsement of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who said Romney "will restore fiscal sanity to Washington by cutting spending, lowering taxes, and reforming entitlements."
Corbett made waves in March when he backed a controversial mandatory ultrasound bill in his state, advising women who did not want to see a sonogram image of the fetus before an abortion to "close your eyes." (AFP)