DIXON – Rick Santorum tailored his standard stump speech Monday to include frequent references to Ronald Reagan.
“This community helped mold Ronald Wilson Reagan,” the Republican presidential candidate said. “Ronald Wilson Reagan helped change the world.”
On a makeshift stage, Santorum stood in front of the Riverfront statue of a young Reagan on a horse.
Hundreds showed up for the event, with people filling up the first block of Hennepin Avenue from the river. A row of park benches kept the crowd about 20 feet from Santorum.
During his speech, Santorum, a candidate in today’s Illinois Republican primary election, compared himself to Reagan, who challenged President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries.
Santorum said the GOP doesn’t have an incumbent president now, but the party establishment has chosen its candidate. He was referring to Mitt Romney, although he never uttered his chief rival’s name.
The establishment sees 2012 as Romney’s turn to be the party’s standard-bearer, Santorum said.
In 1976, Reagan didn’t want to wait for who was next in line, even though Reagan was considered too conservative and unelectable, he said.
Many observers also have accused Santorum of being too conservative to be electable.
Reagan lost to Ford, but won the party’s nomination and then the presidency 4 years later. And he moved America in a conservative direction, Santorum said.
“In the late 1970s, liberal wasn’t a dirty word,” the former Pennsylvania senator said. “Now, liberals don’t like to be called liberals.”
This year, he said, the Republicans should not advance a candidate who has supported government health care, as Santorum said Romney did while he was governor of Massachusetts. He was referring to Romney’s requirement that everyone in the Bay State get health insurance.
Although Santorum argued for smaller government, he promised he wouldn’t cut defense spending. He accused President Barack Obama of wanting to ax the military budget.
He also contended Obama had gone around the world apologizing for the United States.
“Ronald Reagan would never apologize for the greatest country in the world,” Santorum said.
Thunderstorms hit the area throughout much of the morning, but the weather cleared up about an hour before Santorum’s noon speech. He arrived about 15 minutes early, wearing jeans and a sports jacket.
His motorcade of black cars parked on River Street near the podium. He emerged from an SUV and shook hands with those on the edge of the crowd, while event organizers spoke.
Santorum faced a friendly crowd, with many holding signs backing him, including one that read, “Santorum – America’s next Washington.”
No one heckled the candidate, but a few held anti-Santorum signs. One read, “Santorum – a frothy mix of ignorance and bigotry.”
Several speakers noted that the county Democratic Party headquarters is across the street from the statue, with Reagan faced toward the rival party. Mayor Jim Burke, a Democrat, joked that his Republican friends wanted to make sure the Gipper was keeping an eye on Democrats.
Before Santorum spoke, an organizer listed local politicians supporting Santorum. Burke was named among them, but the organizer later admitted that was a mistake.
Burke gave a speech before Santorum spoke, but said in a later interview that he wasn’t supporting the former senator. He said he would welcome any candidate to town.
“He [Santorum] is a personable guy,” the mayor said.
Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, introduced Santorum. He endorsed the candidate last week.
Santorum said he would speak only briefly because meteorologists had warned another storm was approaching. But the sun kept on shining, and his speech lasted about 45 minutes.
With Secret Service agents watching closely, Santorum again worked the crowd, shaking hands. Then he walked to the Riverfront, where he did interviews, before he left for events in Moline and East Peoria. Santorum visited Rockford before coming to Dixon.
Besides Romney and Santorum, the other Republican candidates competing in today’s primary election are Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Rick Perry and Charles “Buddy” Roemer also are on the ballot.