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BOSTON (Reuters) - Former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney endorsed erstwhile rival John McCain on Thursday and urged Republicans to unite behind him in a gesture that could help McCain with disgruntled conservatives.
In the Democratic race, Sen. Hillary Clinton scored a much-needed victory in New Mexico and accused surging opponent Barack Obama of lacking substance and experience as she fought for political traction in Ohio after a string of losses.
After a rough campaign battle between them to be the party's nominee in November's election, Romney offered conciliatory words to McCain a week after dropping out of the race, calling him an American hero.
"Even when the contest was close and our disagreements were debated, the caliber of the man was apparent," Romney said with McCain at his side. "This is a man capable of leading our country at a dangerous hour."
McCain said it was a hard campaign but "now we move forward together for the good of our party and our nation."
"We had differences on specific issues, but there was never any doubt about the common philosophy and principles and dedication to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan that we share," he said.
Romney, 61, and McCain, 71, had battled bitterly over who was the real conservative in the race, culminating in a caustic debate in California on January 30.
That was set aside in Boston at Thursday's endorsement ceremony, which was intended to encourage Republican conservatives long distrustful of McCain to unite behind the all-but-certain nominee.
"I still have my views, the senator has his views, but as a party we come together," Romney said. "We can't possibly incorporate all views of all Republicans into one individual, because we have differing views."
If Romney's 282 delegates were added to McCain's 822, it would give McCain 1,104, putting him within easy reach of the 1,191 needed for nomination. But Romney's delegates are not necessarily bound by his recommendation.
Many conservatives distrust McCain because of his moderate views on illegal immigration and for having originally voted against President George W. Bush's tax cuts. Persuading them all to turn out for him in the November election will be a central challenge.
McCain still faces opposition from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has picked up the support of some conservatives who had been backing Romney.
"This election should be about choices and voices, and not a coronation. Until someone receives 1,191 delegates, the verdict is not in," Huckabee said after Romney backed McCain.
While Republicans were busily trying to unite, Clinton was trying to stop Obama's wave of momentum.
She welcomed news from New Mexico that she had won the party's presidential contest on February 5 in a vote so close it took nine days to count and verify.
"I am so proud to have earned the support of New Mexicans from across the state," Clinton said in a statement, adding she had been awarded 14 of the state's 26 delegates to the party's nominating convention this summer.
Brandishing a pair of blue boxing gloves given to her at a General Motors automobile plant in Lordstown, Ohio, Clinton portrayed herself as a fighter and Obama as someone who makes a lot of speeches that sound good but do not offer solutions.
"That's the difference between me and my opponent. My opponent makes speeches. I offer solutions. It is one thing to get people excited. I want to empower you," the New York senator said.
Clinton, the one-time front-runner for her party's nomination who now finds herself in political peril, intensified her attack as she was forced to scramble for sweeping victories in Ohio and Texas on March 4 and in Pennsylvania on April 22.
She focused on an area that some Democratic strategists say is a weak spot for Obama -- the Illinois senator's tendency to give uplifting, inspirational speeches that offer few specifics about how he would lead the United States if elected.
Clinton has shaken up the top level of her campaign staff and is attempting to re-energize her White House bid. Many strategists now see Obama as the favorite for the nomination after winning eight states in a row.
A new poll showed that at this point, Clinton is in a strong position in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Quinnipiac University poll said she led Obama 55 percent to 34 percent among likely Democratic voters in Ohio, and 52 percent to 36 percent in Pennsylvania.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan with Clinton and Jason Szep in Boston; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/