LONDONDERRY, N.H. — Republicans have yet to cast a single vote but Mitt Romney is starting to sound like he's already won his party's presidential nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor largely ignored his GOP rivals while speaking to New Hampshire voters yesterday. With Iowa Republicans set to begin voting in exactly one week, Romney focused instead on President Barack Obama.
And he sounded increasingly optimistic about his chances.
"I'm not exactly sure how all this is going to work, but I think I'm going to get the nomination if we do our job right," Romney said inside the packed dining room of the Coach Stop restaurant, hours before he was to arrive in Iowa to spend the next several days campaigning across that state by bus. "What this president is doing is trying to turn us into an entitlement nation. That's a deadening approach to a nation that has always been powered by the pursuit of happiness."
As he has done consistently, Romney played down his expectations for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the first stop on the path to the GOP nomination.
"I'd like to win in every state, but I'm really not going to get into the expectations business," he said after a subsequent campaign stop. "What I know I have to do is get about 1,150 delegates and that's going to take time in a lot of states, and I hope to get off to a good start."
Romney dinged his chief rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, very briefly only when prompted by a reporter.
Republican Party officials in Virginia announced over the weekend that Gingrich had failed to submit enough signatures to get on the ballot for the state's March 6 primary. Campaign Manager Michael Krull compared the situation to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Asked about Gingrich's Virginia ballot problem, Romney referenced a famous "I Love Lucy" episode.
"I think he compared that to ... what was it, Pearl Harbor? I think it's more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory," Romney said, referring to the episode where Lucy is humorously overwhelmed by her job. "You've got to get it organized."
It was Romney's first direct criticism of Gingrich on a day when he otherwise ignored his Republican rivals. Romney focused instead on broad issues likely to win over independents, a voting bloc that's expected to play a critical role in next fall's general election. He promised to reach across the aisle to Democrats if elected.
"I'm not going to spend my time bashing the Democrats and attacking them day in and day out, because that makes it impossible to sit down and work together," he said.
And in a nod toward the country's surging Latino population, Romney added that he's open to expanding legal immigration.
"It is a great source of vitality," he said. "And to protect legal immigration, and potentially make it larger, we want to stop illegal immigration."
Romney also teased a hypothetical general election sales pitch against Obama in which he'd ask voters, "Do you think you're better off than you were four years ago?"
"We know the answer to that one," he said with a smile.