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Haraz N. Ghanbari, Associated Press
Audience members listen to President Barack Obama speak at a campaign event at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, Chicago.

CHICAGO — President Barack Obama scooped up hometown campaign cash Wednesday and promised supporters that change can still come if they work even harder this time around.

Coming the day after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's convincing win in New Hampshire's GOP primary, which established him as the clear front-runner to take on the president in the fall, Obama's visit home was all about summoning his backers' enthusiasm for the fight ahead.

"If you're willing to work even harder in this election than you did in the last election, I promise you, change will come," Obama said at the first of three evening fundraisers, a large event at the University of Illinois at Chicago

"You can't back down — not now. We won't give up — not now," Obama said. "We've got to send a message we are going to keep pushing and fighting for the change that we believe in."

Obama's team has castigated Romney at every turn as a political opportunist willing to alter his views — on abortion, the environment and gay marriage — to serve his political purpose.

Without naming Romney, Obama said he had led an administration of principle that has tried to invigorate the economy and kept its promises.

"I'm not a perfect man. I'm not a perfect president, but I promise you this — and I've kept this promise — I will always tell you what I believe and I will always tell you where I stand."

"If you stick with me, we're going to finish what we started in 2008," Obama said.

Obama's campaign has hauled in more than $150 million through September, but Democrats say they will need to compete with Republican-leaning outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to back specific candidates.

Obama's event at the University of Illinois had ticket prices starting at $44 per person. He was also attending a pair of pricier fundraisers Wednesday, with tickets beginning at $7,500 for one event and $35,800 per couple for the other. Those events were at the homes of Fred Eychaner, a Chicago media mogul, and Stuart Taylor, a Bear Stearns executive.

Obama arrived in Chicago Wednesday on an unseasonably warm early evening, and his motorcade zipped along a barren Lakeshore Drive, cleared of rush-hour traffic, to his downtown campaign headquarters.

The White House said Obama wanted to show his appreciation to his campaign staff with the surprise visit — the president's first to the headquarters — but the White House kept the moment private. Reporters traveling with the president were not allowed to witness the visit by Obama, who has insisted he is focused on governing, not campaigning.

A White House statement said Obama thanked his staffers for their hard work and encouraged them, saying that he hoped to run "a campaign that embodies the values we're fighting for."

Obama's re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee set a combined fundraising goal of $60 million for the final three months of 2011. The campaign is expected to release its fundraising report before the end of the month.

Romney's campaign said Wednesday it had collected $56 million for the primary through Dec. 31 and has more than $19 million in the bank, far outpacing his opponents' fundraising.