A college campus may not be the best place to find conservative support, but Mitt Romney did his best at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., on Monday, deflecting questions about Planned Parenthood and birth control to rally the crowd by promising economic freedom and lower gas prices.
Standing in shirt sleeves in front of an academic hall flanked by blooming magnolias, Romney repeated again and again his pledge to improve the economy by loosening regulations, lowering taxes and encouraging entrepreneurship.
"Economic freedom is the fuel that powers our economy. With the president attacking economic freedom day in and day out, he has made it harder and harder for this economy to recover," Romney said.
Speaking directly to the crowd, made up largely of students from this small university of about 6,000, Romney pledged not only to create good jobs for graduating seniors, but jobs with higher wages than the ones students are getting now.
"Even those that have jobs are finding themselves in a position well beneath their skill level," he said, adding that the median wage in America had dropped 10% during President Obama's term.
Romney has had to tweak his message after the U.S. economy started adding jobs at a more consistent rate this year. Rather than blame Obama for the absence of a recovery, Romney now says that the economy could be recovering even faster were he in charge. He criticized Obama for wanting to raise taxes, and then accused him of "crony capitalism" for giving stimulus money to certain companies but not others and for bailing out the auto industry. He also warned the audience that by adding to the debt, their generation might find itself with bills it couldn't pay.
"Because of his lack of experience in the private sector, never really having had a job in the private sector, he doesn't know that what he's doing is hurting so badly and harming so many families," Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor also took Obama to task for his energy policies, blaming the president's Cabinet members for helping to drive up gas prices and send money abroad for foreign oil. Romney, like other GOP candidates, has promised to drill for oil and to jump-start the stalled Keystone XL pipeline in order to drive down gas prices, an issue on many voters' minds.
"The middle class is being squeezed in America," he said. The president "is out of ideas, out of excuses, and in 2012 we have to make sure he's out of office."
After a well-received speech, Romney ran into trouble when he called on audience members for questions. His first question, from a female student, went exactly like this (it's in college speak):
"So you're all for, like, yay freedom and all this stuff, and yay, like, pursuit of happiness. You know what would make me happy? Free birth control," a question/statement that drew both jeers and cheers from the audience.
After limping through an answer that began, "If you're looking for free stuff ... vote for the other guy," Romney picked another questioner from the audience, clearly not having learned to avoid young women on college campuses. She asked him, in light of his opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, "I'm just wondering where you would suggest that the millions of women who receive their health services -- such as mammograms and HPV services -- go."
Romney responded that the federal government was going to have to make tough choices, and that some programs -- such as the National Endowment for the Arts - would have to be cut.
"Big Bird is going to have to get used to Kellogg's Corn Flakes," he said, suggesting that the PBS program"Sesame Street" would have to begin running advertisements.
The rest of the questions were less combative, revolving around drilling for oil and the housing market, but Romney's answers impressed Bradley students such as Carolyn Ferrill, a 22-year-old junior.
"I'm not really for either party, but this might have made me change my mind," she said. "He responded to each question with respect, and I liked what he had to say about drilling."
"I liked that it was a varied crowd," added her friend, Steve Crane, 21, who said he supported the Green Party. But Romney won his respect, Crane said, adding that he agreed with drilling for oil (perhaps a surprising position for a Green Party member).
"He's got good ideas," Crane said.