LOS ANGELES — In a further closing of Republican ranks, former President George H.W. Bush formally endorsed — or, rather, re-endorsed — Mitt Romney on Thursday and said it was “time for the party to get behind” the former Massachusetts governor.

Appearing with Romney and former first lady Barbara Bush at his office in Houston, the nation’s 41st president alluded to the 1970s country music hit “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers, mangling the lyrics somewhat. “I do think it’s time for the party to get behind Gov. Romney,” Bush said. “Kenny Rogers sang, ‘It’s time when to hold ‘em and time when to fold ‘em.’ “

Praising Romney’s rivals — who went unnamed — Bush said, “Some of ‘em waged a very good fight.” But, he went on, the couple had known Romney for “a very long time” and “we’re so convinced … that he’s the man to do this job and get on and win the presidency.”

Romney and the Bushes sat together in a set of matching brown leather chairs — imported from the White House, the former president said. He thanked the couple and restated his familiar criticisms of President Barack Obama.

“I think we’re on a very dangerous path,” Romney said, “and I think it’s important for us to select a nominee and get on with a campaign that will focus on two very different visions for America.”

Bush’s backing of the Republican front-runner was no surprise. The two met at Bush’s Texas home in December, not long after the elder Bush told CNN that Romney was a “reasonable guy, a conservative fellow” and that he would make a “very good president.” Bush later told the Houston Chronicle that he thought Romney was “the best choice for us.”

Earlier this month, the Romney campaign employed a Barbara Bush robocall telling Republicans in Ohio and Vermont that she and husband had known the Romney family “for years” and that she believed the former governor was “the best man to lead the country for the next four years.”

Bush’s announcement was just the latest in a series of high-profile endorsements that have helped seal the air of inevitability around Romney’s candidacy, even as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul press on with their campaigns. The next vote is Tuesday, when Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia hold primaries.

“I hope to get a good number of delegates from those three contests and be on my way to secure the nomination and taking on the president,” Romney said Thursday.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio threw his support behind Romney on Wednesday night, saying the idea that the GOP race would continue until the party’s August convention in Tampa was “a recipe to deliver four more years to Barack Obama.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son of the ex-president, has also signaled his impatience with the drawn-out Republican race, endorsing Romney a day after his primary win last week in Illinois. “It is time to get behind the nominee,” the younger Bush told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Asked Thursday if he met during his Texas stop with another of Bush’s sons, former President George W. Bush, Romney said he had not. “We speak from time to time,” Romney said.

The nation’s 43rd president has not endorsed a candidate in the GOP contest.

(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times