BEMIDJI, Minn. - Despite the gorgeous day in usually frigid northern Minnesota and cheerful crowds greeting him at every point of an hours long tour of this town, Rick Santorum had a doomsday message for those gathered at the local university.
If President Obama's health care plan is allowed to take affect, those on the "margins of life," including children with special needs like Santorum's own daughter, will not get the necessary medical help to survive, he said.
The former Pennsylvania senator even brought up Sarah Palin's controversial "death panels" claim.
"I don't know how much time we have, so being away from her is a cross, it's a heavy cross daily," Santorum said referring to being away from his youngest daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare and serious genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. Two weeks ago she was hospitalized with double pneumonia in a grave health scare for the family.
"But at the same time I look and see what 'Obamacare' and big government will mean for little girls like little Bella and for people … on the margins of life," Santorum said. "Sarah Palin was criticized for 'death panels,' but ladies and gentlemen the federal government will in fact allocate resources based on where those resources are best allocated, because there is not an unlimited amount of money. You will become instead of patients, you will become cost centers of the government and they are not going to allocate resources if your prospects for being productive are not good."
While giving his pitch to Minnesotans, who are set to caucus Tuesday, he sent a somewhat grim warning to the crowd of 500 people.
"I'm not asking you to give up your life, no one needs to lose their life as a result of what's happening here, at least not immediately," Santorum said.
The former Pennsylvania senator went after two of his rivals, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, hitting them both for supporting a federal healthcare mandate, but he added that the White House is so looking forward to taking on the former Massachusetts governor and the former speaker of the House that they are "salivating."
"There is a reason the White House is really very comfortable about how things are looking in this race, because they have two candidates they're just salivating to run against, because they can take the biggest issues, the biggest liabilities that President Obama has and turn them on us. Why would the Republican Party do something like that?" Santorum asked.
The presidential candidate came to this northern part of the state because this small town is where his signature look is made: the Santorum sweater vests.
Taken on a running tour of every step of the sweater vest-making process, as well as the town's popular spots, by the owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills, Santorum was greeted by smiling crowds and members of the community happy to meet the first presidential candidate to visit the town in decades, but also clearly gleeful to have the business.
The tour first took him to a local Catholic church for a pancake breakfast, then to where the wool for the sweater vests is knitted. The next stop was where the sweaters are manufactured and finally to where they are embroidered. The candidate met the employees who work at Bemidji Woolen Mills and everywhere was greeted by young and old wearing the vests that have become both a campaign trail staple and a bit of a running joke.
Santorum himself even mentioned that the look started as a "fashion faux pas."
The sweater vests come with a $100 donation to the campaign and aides say they have sold over 1300 on their website.
Even billionaire mutual fund manager and Santorum SuperPAC fundraiser Foster Friess wore one. He was with Santorum all day on the campaign trail bounding from stop to stop around Bemidji.
Before the rally at Bemidji State University, the group of sweater vest-wearing men - which included Santorum, his aides, Friess, and several members of the community, including the owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills - ended their sprint around town at the famous statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Ox. The massive monument is one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the country and Santorum and his other group of vest-wearing compatriots and residents of the town all lined up to take a photo in front of the statues.
Bemidji's past as a lumbering town has led the community to adopt Bunyan as their own.
On the tour of the mill, Santorum was also asked about the state of the race and, in light of Romney's rout Saturday night in the Nevada caucuses, what his game plan looks like.
"What we have now, we are going to Minnesota on Tuesday and the race here in Minnesota is nothing like the race as it was in Iowa," Santorum said. "In Iowa people were here 24/7, there were campaigns, there were ads. That's not going on here, and so what you have her in Minnesota, in Missouri and coming up in Colorado, is folks who are not being overwhelmed by the candidates, media, and being overwhelmed by the campaigns and really have a better opportunity to sort of sift through it all and actually look at all the candidates and make a decision based on all the information they've gathered from neutral sources."
At the rally, Santorum also again criticized the controversial decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to require Catholic institutions to cover birth control and the morning after pill in their health care plans, but today he went a step further saying the Obama administration was restricting freedom of speech.
"As you know in many dioceses, a letter was read complaining about this imposition on Catholics in America," Santorum said, referring to a letter read in Catholic churches last weekend criticizing the new requirement. "There was one diocese where this wasn't read and that was the military archdiocese. Why wasn't it read in the military archdiocese? Because the Obama administration banned the letter from being read to our men and women in uniform. This week they eventually relented but they forced them, the Catholic Church to edit the letter the way the government wants that message related to those troops. This is not just an affront to the first amendment freedom of religion, it's an affront to the First Amendment freedom of speech. Did you ever think this would happen in America?"
Despite finishing last in Nevada, he told Minnesotans that they can "re-set the race" on Tuesday telling them "to prove the pundits wrong again."
"They have been wanting to write this story that the person with the most money and the person with the most organization, they are the ones that are going to win this race, not the person with the best ideas. Not the person with the biggest contrasts," Santorum said. "You folks in Minnesota know that money doesn't buy everything, and it's certainly not going to win this election."