Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney welcomed an unexpected endorsement Thursday from business magnate Donald Trump, as the former Massachusetts governor fends off critics over a remark in which he said he's "not concerned about the very poor."

Trump confirmed to reporters he will back Romney for the GOP presidential nomination, reasoning that Romney's performance in debates as well as his tough stance on China convinced him he would be best suited to challenge U.S. President Barack Obama in a general election.

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Donald Trump greets Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, after announcing his endorsement of Romney during a news conference on Thursday. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

The celebrity real-estate mogul and reality TV show host, who in the past has dismissed Romney as a "small business guy," announced his support for the former head of investment firm Bain Capital Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas.

"Mitt is tough, he is smart, he is sharp, he's not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we love," Trump told a news conference. "So Gov. Romney, go out and get 'em. You can do it."

The nod to Romney is a surprising twist in the campaign, as the candidate's chief rival, Newt Gingrich, had been certain enough on Wednesday about having Trump's support that close aides of the former House speaker told news organizations that a Gingrich endorsement was in the bag.

Commenting on his negative comments about Romney in the past, Trump said those statements were made before he and the candidate held several meetings in recent months.

"I never knew him. I knew of him and respected him, but I really got to know him over the past few months," Trump said.

P.O.V.

Is the Romney/Gingrich battle weakening the Republican Party? Have your say.

Although the endorsement could be seen as a coup for the Romney camp, CBC's Susan Bonner explained from Washington that the candidate may also be receiving the show of good faith from Trump with some trepidation.

"His ability to get attention is much greater than his influence," she said of Trump. "A recent poll of Republicans indicated that many say they wouldn't be influenced at all by what Donald Trump says. In fact, many said that if Trump were to endorse a candidate, it might dissuade them from wanting to support that candiate."

Pundits have observed that Romney may be uneasy about this endorsement.

Damage control

Trump, who hosts the reality show The Apprentice, is known for his catch phrase, "You're fired," Bonner noted. Meanwhile, Romney has already landed in hot water over a comment in which he said in a speech last month that as the head of Bain Capital, he liked being able to fire people.

Trump's endorsement also comes as Romney's campaign shifts into damage-control mode, after Romney said he's "not concerned about the very poor" because they have an "ample safety net."

Democrats and Republicans alike — including Gingrich — pounced and the GOP front-runner quickly sought to explain his remarks on Wednesday.

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," Romney told reporters on his campaign plane when asked about the comments. "No, no, no. You've got to take the whole sentence — all right, it's mostly the same." He said his remark was consistent with his theme throughout the race, adding: "My energy is going to be devoted to helping middle-income people."

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Ann Romney introduces her husband, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at a campaign rally in Las Vegas Feb. 1. The Nevada caucuses take place on Feb. 4. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Despite that explanation, Romney's comments quickly became an immediate distraction from his message that he's more conservative than Gingrich and from the double-digit thumping the former House speaker sustained in Florida on Tuesday.

Gingrich raised Romney's remark at his first event since losing the Florida primary. He read Romney's quotes aloud and they were met with boos from the crowd at a brewery in Reno, Nev.

"I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other," Gingrich said. "I am running to be the president of all the American people and I am concerned about all the American people."

As the day began, Romney told CNN from Florida: "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 per cent of Americans who right now are struggling."

'So much for 'we're all in this together'.' —Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager

"You can focus on the very poor, that's not my focus," he said.

Obama's re-election campaign jumped at the opportunity to criticize the former Massachusetts governor. "So much for 'we're all in this together,'" tweeted Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.

Some conservative pundits also labelled it a gaffe, calling it evidence Romney isn't prepared to run against Obama.

"The issue here is not that Romney is right or wrong, but that he is handing choice sound bites to the Democrats to make him as unlikeable as he made Newt Gingrich," Erick Erickson wrote on the conservative RedState blog.

What's next?

  • Feb. 4: Nevada (caucus).
  • Feb. 4-11: Maine (caucus).
  • Feb. 7: Colorado (caucus); Minnesota (caucus); Missouri (primary).
  • Feb. 28: Arizona (primary); Michigan (primary).

And Jonah Goldberg at the conservative National Review Online said of Romney: "Every time he seems to get into his groove and pull away he says things that make people think he doesn't know how to play the game."

With criticism mounting, Romney flew to Minnesota where he boasted about his "huge" Florida victory at a rally before heading to Nevada, where the next Republican caucus vote will be held on Saturday.

Gay rights protesters in Minnesota threw glitter at Romney before he took the stage, making him the latest candidate to be "glittered" by activists opposed to his position on gay rights. Romney, who opposes gay marriage, put a positive spin on the sparkle in his hair.

"This is confetti! We just won Florida," he said as he took the stage.

Romney, whose central challenge is winning over skeptical conservatives, told reporters the fact that he performed strongly among conservatives in Florida made sense because he's more conservative than Gingrich.

Santorum still in

"I'm not saying he's not conservative. I'm just saying he's not the pure conservative he would have people believe, and I think folks in Florida saw through that," Romney said. His campaign also started airing a radio ad in Colorado on Wednesday that says "conservatives across America are supporting Mitt Romney."

Elsewhere on the campaign trail:

In Colorado, Rick Santorum took aim at Romney's health care overhaul in Massachusetts and Newt Gingrich's shifting policy positions as he sought to deny either rival the Republican presidential nomination.

Santorum, looking to find footing ahead of Saturday's caucuses in Nevada and Tuesday's primary in Colorado, told supporters that Republicans would guarantee Obama a second term if Romney or Gingrich were to win the nomination.

Signalling he was unwilling to exit the race and help either rival rise, Santorum said he would push on all the way to the Republican convention, if necessary. "I'm in this race until the very end," he said to boisterous cheers. "I'm going to stay in this until the very end."

In Las Vegas, Texas congressman Ron Paul ended a campaign stop by celebrating a personal milestone: his and his wife Carol's 55th wedding anniversary. He presented his bride with a bouquet of flowers, and the couple shared a kiss and hug. The Pauls were married on Feb. 1, 1957, in Pittsburgh. They have five children and 18 grandchildren.