After long and bruising Republican primaries, Mitt Romney has emerged the inevitable winner of the contest that was always his to lose. However, as his chief rival, Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign yesterday, Mr. Romney's victory was bittersweet.
To wrestle his opponents out of the race, Mr. Romney had to pivot right to appeal to the fundamentalist wing of his party. The moderate conservative who once claimed his centrist politics made him the only candidate capable of beating Barack Obama in a general election now faces an acute identity crisis.
Which version of Mr. Romney will run for president, the moderate former Massachusetts governor who entered the Republican primaries or the more socially conservative one who ended it? Even the most seasoned political analysts are unsure, highlighting the depth of his predicament.
If he stays the course – which saw him harden his stand on everything from same-sex marriage to abortion – he risks sabotaging his bid to win mainstream support. But even if his best shot at the White House involves a shift back to the middle, chances are he will be hamstrung by the Republican Party.
"Will his own party let him do that? I'm not sure," said Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University. At the Republican August convention in Tampa, Fla., his ability to control the right wing of his party will be tested.
"It will either be a grand coronation or a freak show," Prof. Schiller said.
And while Republican analysts applauded Mr. Santorum for exiting the race now, sparing Mr. Romney millions of dollars and allowing him to put the bitter nomination race behind him, observers acknowledge the nasty nature of these primaries has left Mr. Romney in a decidedly tough spot.
"The old dictum was you went right for the primaries and moved centre for the general election. The problem for Mr. Romney is he's already been accused so often of flip-flopping," explained Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "He can't afford too many shifts. He's boxed in."
In this way, Mr. Romney is emerging from the Republican contest decidedly weaker than when he started. Complicating his presidential prospects, public support for Mr. Obama is surging, with the U.S. economy showing strong signs of recovery.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Mr. Romney trailing Mr. Obama by seven percentage points, with huge gaps in support among women and Latino voters. The "likability" factor continues to be a major obstacle for the Republican.
This week, even comedian Jon Stewart mocked Mr. Romney for managing only tepid endorsements from high-profile Republicans, such as former president George H.W. Bush and Marco Rubio.
In bowing out of the Republican race, Mr. Santorum did not mention Mr. Romney by name during his 12-minute speech, much less endorse him, which is not necessarily unusual in such circumstances. In 2000, John McCain endorsed George Bush only two months after Mr. Bush became the Republican nominee. In 2008, it took Hillary Clinton four days to formally endorse Mr. Obama.
However, analysts say the long and drawn out Republican race means the party can't afford to wait long for Mr. Romney's former rivals to close rank and rally around him.
For his part, Mr. Santorum hinted that while he was throwing in the towel on the nomination, he still considered himself a player in the quest to defeat Mr. Obama.
"We are not done fighting. We are going to continue to fight for those voices, we are going to continue to fight for the Americans who stood up and gave us that air under our wings that allowed us to accomplish things that no political expert would have ever expected," Mr. Santorum said in Gettysburg, Pa., flanked by his family.
His announcement came after his three-year-old disabled daughter, Bella, was hospitalized with pneumonia. However, it was unclear how much of a factor his concern over her well-being was in his decision.
He did not explain exactly why he was ending his presidential bid, but by dropping out now, Mr. Santorum, is in many ways a winner.
His decision drew instant praise from the Republican establishment and he remains a hero to the Tea Party. The primary contest saw him chart an uphill path, on a shoestring budget against more high-powered candidates, to emerge as the biggest thorn in Mr. Romney's side.
He won primaries and caucuses in 11 states, for 272 delegates, according to the Real Clear Politics count. Mr. Romney has 656 delegates so far, out of 1,114 required for the nomination.
Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are vowing to stay in the Republican race. Mr. Paul's campaign said he is "the last – and real – conservative alternative" to Mr. Romney. Mr. Gingrich took to Twitter to call Mr. Santorum's departure "the last stand for conservatives" and to urge supporters to donate to his campaign.
There is speculation that Mr. Santorum would be interested in running as vice-president on Mr. Romney's ticket, but analysts say such a scenario is unlikely, given the bitterness of the two candidates' rivalry. More likely, they say, is that Mr. Santorum will position himself for another run at the Republican nomination in 2016 or 2020.
"He is certainly looking to the future. If he wasn't looking to the future, he wouldn't have dropped out," said Prof. Schiller.
Mr. Romney issued a statement congratulating his former opponent for his efforts.
"Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran," Mr. Romney said.
"He has proven himself to be an important voice in our party and in the nation. We both recognize that what is most important is putting the failures of the last three years behind us and setting America back on the path to prosperity."
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama compared the coming presidential contest to the 1964 race that pitted Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater. That race ended in one of the biggest Democratic landslides in history.
With a report from Associated Press