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Santorum on defensive in Illinois over unemployment remark

Republican voters in Illinois are casting their ballots Tuesday in the state's presidential primary. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

EAST PEORIA, IL -- Rick Santorum began the Monday before the Illinois primary addressing Mitt Romney's claims that he is "an economic lightweight." By the day's end, it was the former Pennsylvania senator's own words that had him on the defensive.

Making four stops in the Land of Lincoln, Santorum suggested at a rally in Moline that the nation's unemployment rate "doesn't matter to me."  The point, he later explained, was that his campaign is based on more fundamental issues than the current jobless numbers and that Republicans do not believe it is the government's role to create employment, only to create an atmosphere for job growth.


But it took little time for his chief rival for the GOP nomination to pounce on the comments. Stumping in Peoria less than two hours later, Romney used Santorum's line to further his case that he the only candidate capable of handling the economy.

 

"One of the people who is running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn’t care about the unemployment rate, that does bother me. I do care about the unemployment rate," said Romney.

Santorum's remarks came on the heels of a different eyebrow-raising incident in a Louisiana prayer service on Sunday night. As Santorum sat off to the side in Baton Rouge church, pastor Dennis Terry, who introduced the Republican hopeful, delivered some fiery rhetoric about religious tolerance.  "I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation," Terry said, adding, "There’s only one God.  There’s only one God.  And his name is Jesus."

When pressed by reporters on Monday about the comments, Santorum said he did not hold the pastor's views.  "I believe in freedom of religion and all religions are welcome and should be. I think I've made that pretty clear throughout my campaign."

The distractions came less than 24 hours before Illinois voters go to the polls to decide how their 54 delegates will be allocated.  The state is largely expected to favor Romney, but a strong showing from Santorum could further cement his place as the only candidate able to mount a challenge to the former Massachusetts governor's front-runner status.

With more than 15 media appearances on Monday in addition to the four campaign rallies, the Santorum campaign was hoping to leave Illinois on high note.  As Romney delivered an economic address at the University of Chicago, Santorum touted his blue collar candidacy in Dixon, the hometown of GOP hero Ronald Reagan.

"We need someone who can talk and strike blows for big things like Reagan did for freedom, for America," he said while standing in front of bronze statue of Reagan on a horse.  "Let’s just be brutally honest about it. There’s one candidate in this race who could never make this race about freedom because he simply abandoned freedom when he was governor of Massachusetts and he abandoned it when he promoted Obamacare in 2009.”

Throughout the day he called out Romney over his ties to Wall Street and a job creation record that, Santorum said, was one of the worst in the country while Romney led the Bay State.

But during his final rally outside a pizza shop in East Peoria, Santorum seemed to acknowledge the toll his off-the-cuff style has taken on him. "When you got out there and you don’t talk from a teleprompter, and you’re not, you know, reading notes that someone else gave you, occasionally you say something things, you wish you had a, you know, a do-over," he said.

"But you know what, I think it’s important that you get a sense of how real the candidate is, mistakes and all.”

NBC's Jamie Novogrod contributed to this report.

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