Steven Senne, Associated Press
CHICAGO — A confident Mitt Romney is shifting toward the general election as his grasp on the Republican presidential nomination tightens, saying Tuesday that he would work with Democrats to solve the nation's problems — or "die trying."
Over the past two days, the GOP front-runner has focused almost entirely on President Barack Obama while campaigning in the Democrat's home state ahead of Tuesday's Republican primary. Now, he's emphasizing his willingness to compromise with the opposition party if elected — a message aimed squarely at the center of the electorate rather than at GOP loyalists who vote in Republican primaries.
He said Obama clearly recognizes he must work across the political aisle but hasn't been able to do so as president.
"I've had that experience. And I will either get that done or I will die trying," Romney said before Illinois Republicans weighed in on the nomination fight. "I'm going to do everything I can to bring people together to accomplish what has to be done."
Romney may be overstating his bi-partisan credentials. Massachusetts Democrats report that the former governor grew increasingly partisan once he began to eye the presidency.
No matter the outcome of Tuesday's primary, the former Massachusetts governor was all but certain to add to his growing number of delegates to the party's summertime GOP national nominating convention, given that his chief rival — Rick Santorum — can't win 10 delegates of the 54 up for grabs because his campaign didn't file the proper paperwork.
Asked before polls closed whether he expected to win the primary, Romney said simply, "I hope so."
But his focus was clearly elsewhere, as he chatted via video conference with a handful of pre-selected supporters from Google's Chicago headquarters. Ignoring his Republican rivals altogether, he addressed issues likely to play prominently in a general election campaign against the incumbent president, like bipartisanship, China, health care and gas prices.
Romney also appealed directly to young voters, a voting bloc that overwhelmingly supported Obama four years ago.
"I don't see how young people could vote for an administration that keeps putting in place trillion dollar deficits," Romney said. "The growth of government is smothering dreams in this country."
Also Tuesday, he raised more than $1.3 million at a luncheon fundraiser.
Romney's general election focus comes as his campaign intensifies calls for his Republican opponents to give up what has become a near-mathematical impossibility.
Romney has already captured more delegates than his opponents combined, and is on pace to win the 1,144 needed in June.
His wife, Ann, suggested in recent days that Illinois voters could send a strong message that now is the time to unite one candidate.
Romney and his allies have spent a combined $3.5 million on Illinois television ads, grossly outspending Santorum and his backers.
Santorum's unforced errors likely hurt him as well. On Monday, he suggested that neither the economy nor the unemployment rate was his top concern. He later explained his comments as being about freedom, not the economy.
"The problem with the economy is government taking people's freedom away and advancing regulations, destroying and undermining businesses ability to be problem solvers," he told Chicago radio station WLS. "Americans don't take kindly to the yoke of government, and we don't do very well. Our economy struggles when that happens."
The original comments sparked a rash of criticism that Romney picked up on at his final campaign stop of the day at Bradley University in central Illinois.
"One of the people who is running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn't care about the unemployment rate," Romney told college students in Peoria, Ill., on Monday. "It does bother me. I want to get people back to work. I am concerned about those how are out of work."
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