Mitt Romney’s path to the Republican nomination has cleared further after two new high-profile endorsements and Newt Gingrich’s decision cut back his campaign staff.

Mr Romney was endorsed on Wednesday by George H. W. Bush, the former president, and by Marco Rubio, the up-and-coming first term senator from Florida who has a strong Tea Party following.

Mr Rubio, who is of Cuban origin, has long been talked of as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Mr Romney, as he carries clout in the key swing state of Florida and among Hispanics, the fastest-growing large voter bloc in the US and with whom Mr Romney so far rates poorly.

“In Mitt Romney, we have a candidate, an alternative, that in addition to being successful as a governor, running an important state in this country, has also been successful in the private sector and offers a very clear alternative to the direction this president is going to take our country,” Mr Rubio told Fox News.

Mr Bush, as longtime supporter of Mr Romney, will formally announce his annoucement on Thursday afternoon in Houston alongside the candidate.

As for Mr Gingrich, the former speakers’s campaign has struggled to gain traction and he has raised little money apart from the backing he has received from his super-political action committee.

The former speaker of the House of Representatives once led the Republican field and had big wins in the South Carolina and Georgia primaries. Though he hasn’t won any states since March 6, he has repeatedly vowed to campaign “all the way to convention”. The steps announced on Wednesday, which include cutting a third of his campaign staff, were described as essential for Mr Gingrich to continue on to the convention.

“Our campaign is focused on winning a big choice convention this August in Tampa and is making necessary adjustments to leadership and personnel to execute our strategy,” said Joe DeSantis, Mr Gingrich’s communications director.

Although the Gingrich campaign has not elaborated on what this means in practice, it is likely that Mr Gingrich wants to use the delegates he has accumulated to gain leverage at the convention in the choice of nominee, should Mr Romney have not won by then.

Mr Gingrich will not formally drop out of the race, partly because he needs to remain a candidate to allow him to raise funds to repay debts already incurred by his campaign.

Mr Gingrich’s demise parallels in part the difficulties of Mr Romney’s chief rival, Rick Santorum, who is also battling to gain the momentum he needs to pose a genuine threat to the former Massachusetts governor.

But while Mr Romney continues to accumulate delegates and grind his way to the nomination, he is also gathering his own problems along the way.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, released on Wednesday, found that only 34 per cent of respondents held a favourable opinion of Mr Romney, the lowest for any presidential frontrunner in ABC/Post polls in primary seasons since 1984. By contrast, Barack Obama’s favourable rating was 53 per cent.

ABC said Mr Romney’s unfavourable score was higher than Mr Obama has ever received and has been exceeded by this year only by Mr Gingrich among Republicans, and by only one top candidate in 28 years, Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Another poll, of the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio by Quinnipiac University, also contained good news for Mr Obama, as he led Mr Romney in all of them.

Although it is early days and views of any Republican candidate are unlikely to solidify until the nomination is secured, such numbers will probably hearten an Obama campaign preparing for a close election.

Perhaps mindful the lack of enthusiasm for Mr Romney, Mr Santorum has refused to drop out of the race and disputed suggestions that the party would benefit from a quick choice of a candidate

“The idea that a long campaign against Barack Obama is a good thing for our nominee is a failed idea,” he told a Milwaukee radio station before Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary.

“Do you really think it’s to the advantage of the Republican nominee to have seven months where the mainstream media can beat the living tar out of us, for Barack Obama to take his enormous money advantage, no matter who the nominee is …and begin to be able to tear apart the Republican candidate for months, where the Republican will have very little ability to be able to fight back?” he asked.

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