PEORIA, Ill. – Mitt Romney's final public appearance before voters here head to the polls was not a typical rally or economic-messaging event.
Instead, a crowd of more than 1,000 college students and area residents were treated to a town hall event, in which Romney made an economic pitch targeted directly at younger voters, while attempting to hold the line on his positions on issues that matter particularly to college students, like government's role in managing student debt or covering birth control.
On the manicured campus of Bradley University, where alum and Romney endorser Rep. Aaron Schock introduced him on Monday night, Romney expanded on his Monday afternoon economic speech, explaining in greater depth what he meant when he told an audience at the University of Chicago that he couldn't understand why young people would vote for Democrats instead of Republicans.
"I and my party are also devoted to making sure we don't pass on to you trillions upon trillions of dollars in debt. We have in the Democratic party people who are consumed with giving more and more benefits to me and my generation, and passing on those burdens to you," Romney said. "Every trillion dollars this president amasses, every year, guess who is going to pay that? Not me. I'm gone. I'm too old to pay it back. You're going to pay it back."
Romney has occasionally struggled to win over younger voters this primary season. In the tight race in neighboring Iowa he finished third among the 17 to 29-year-old demographic, behind Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. In his Ohio victory, Romney finished nine points behind Santorum with voters 18 to 29. In blowout wins in Florida and Arizona, Romney carried the youth vote by double digits.
On Monday evening, Romney told his mostly-younger audience that his economic agenda was designed with them in mind.
"My party, my vision, is about protecting economic freedom for you," Romney said. "I've had it for me. I've had economic freedom. I've achieved beyond my wildest dreams. I want economic freedom for you."
As the event moved to questions, Romney, who rarely delves into social issues unprompted, took a first question about birth control. Told by a young woman that she would like free birth control as part of her own "pursuit of happiness," Romney first appeared to stumble over the abruptness of the question, then gathered himself into a response that dealt with the economics of such a handout, not the morality.
"Look, let me tell you something,” Romney started. “If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for? Vote for the other guy, that’s what he’s all about, O.K.? That’s not, that’s not what I’m about."
Likewise, Romney defended his opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, for which he has been roundly criticized by democratic and women's groups in the last few weeks. Asked where women should go for mammograms or other care currently offered by Planned Parenthood after a Romney administration defunded it, the candidate responded:
"Well they can go wherever they’d like to go; this is a free society. But here’s what I’d say, which is the federal government should not tax these people to pay for Planned Parenthood," Romney said. "The idea of the federal government funding Planned Parenthood I’m going to say no, we’re going to stop that."
Regarding student loan debt – a pertinent issue for college students – Romney again opposed government handouts -- or any form of government relief for suffering students, for that matter -- but predicted President Obama would not do the same.
"Best thing I can do for student debt is get you a good job when you come out," Romney said. "And by the way, get ready for President Obama's claim ... I know he is going to come out at some point and talk about how he is going to make it vanish. And that's another -- here I'll give you something for free -- and I'm not going to do that."