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Santorum addresses voters at Grace Bible Church in Columbia

Friday, February 3, 2012 | 8:26 p.m. CST; updated 9:48 p.m. CST, Friday, February 3, 2012

COLUMBIA — Sen. Rick Santorum became the first Republican presidential candidate to visit Missouri on Friday when he spoke at Grace Bible Church.

Santorum addressed an enthusiastic crowd that well exceeded the 450 people anticipated by organizers. Event planner Jeff Coleman said the turnout was the product of "a Facebook post and word of mouth."

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Such digital efforts drew Jim Willis an hour away from his home in Macon. Willis said he was still undecided about his vote.

In his interview-style address facilitated by evangelical author and radio host James Dobson, Santorum gave uncommitted attendees like Willis plenty to digest. The program, titled "Faith, Freedom and the American Family," touched on everything from healthcare to business controls. The central theme: deregulation.

"We're not going to try to micromanage the way you plow your field," Santorum said in reference to his intention to cut numerous costly federal regulations.

Among the legislation on the chopping block was Obamacare, which Santorum labeled a "siren song." If the government gives you a right, he argued, they also have the power to tell you how to exercise it. The resulting bureaucracy is too selective and too inefficient.

Santorum seized the opportunity to take a swipe at opponent Mitt Romney, fingering "remarkable" similarities between his and President Barack Obama's health care plans as a cause for concern.

Electability was also a hot issue.

Referencing polls that showed he had a high approval rating in Florida — more than 60 percent — Santorum chuckled.

"If everyone who liked me voted for me, I would have won."

Santorum's lightheartedness is attractive to voters like Bobbie Keeney.

"He seems very real, very genuine to me," Keeney said, also listing fiscal and social conservatism, Christianity and a working-class background as some of Santorum's desirable qualifications.

Willis, who walked into the sanctuary uncommitted, followed up his initial comment after the address.

"I think he's got our vote," he said.

The rally was one of several Missouri events hosted Friday by the former Pennsylvania senator. In light of consistent third-place finishes in primaries and caucuses along the East Coast, Santorum's campaign has taken an early turn westward, paying particular attention to states like Missouri, where Santorum might be able to strip Romney of delegates.

Santorum cited Newt Gingrich's absence from the Missouri ballot as an opportunity to go head-to-head with the former Massachusetts governor.

"There's no better place to show than the Show-Me State," he said.

Public Policy Polling released data Tuesday projecting Santorum, not Romney, as the frontrunner among candidates on Missouri ballot, with 45 percent of respondents voting in his favor. The poll also noted that Santorum received a 63 percent approval rating to Romney's 46 percent.

Winning the primary, though, does not guarantee Santorum delegates. Missouri will not award its delegates until after the conclusion of caucuses slated to occur on three levels — county, district and state — beginning in March.

A victory in Tuesday's race is, therefore, somewhat insignificant. With the exception of Santorum, the Republican playing field has its eyes set on states like Nevada and Maine, whose caucuses this weekend will be binding.

Still, Missouri, often referred to as a "bellwether" state, has a long history of predicting successful candidates. Santorum reported Friday that he has raised more money in the past week than in any other week during his campaign. Though no delegates will be awarded Tuesday, the building momentum could be just the thing his campaign needs to turn around.

In the meantime, Santorum sees no end in sight.

"I'm not getting out of the race," he said to thunderous applause.


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