WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush on Wednesday endorsed Mitt Romney to be the Republican nominee for president and urged the party to unite behind the former Massachusetts governor as the best choice to unseat President Barack Obama.
"Primary elections have been held in 34 states and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall," Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush, said in a statement released by his education foundation.
The endorsement by Bush, who rejected entreaties from some Republican Party leaders to run for president himself, is a signal that establishment party leaders could be moving off the sidelines to throw their support behind Romney.
Bush's endorsement came after Romney scored an easy win in Illinois on Tuesday over his closest rival, Rick Santorum, moving him one step closer to clinching the party's volatile battle for the right to face Obama in the November 6 election.
"I am endorsing Mitt Romney for our party's nomination," Bush said. "We face huge challenges and we need a leader who understands the economy, recognizes more government regulation is not the answer, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism and works to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed.
Romney has been fighting Santorum for support from the most conservative Republicans. Romney, who has more than twice as many delegates to the nominating convention as Santorum, has claimed that his rivals cannot catch him.
Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been trying to keep Romney from capturing a majority of delegates by the time the state-by-state nominating contests end in June, leaving the choice up to the party's mostly conservative delegates heading into the August nominating convention in Tampa, Florida.
Romney's campaign has urged Republicans to unite around the front-runner in order to have a better chance against Obama in the general election.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Deborah Charles; Editing by Jackie Frank)