ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Rick Santorum's presidential campaign has been beset by the impression that he talks too much about things that are not central to the concerns of most voters, such as contraception, President Barack Obama's theology, and most recently, pornography.

On Monday morning, as Santorum kicked off a full day of campaigning in Illinois, where he trails Mitt Romney in the polls, Santorum gave critics of his messaging more ammunition.

"The issue in this race is not the economy," he said.

His statement was part of a longer monologue about why Obama's health care overhaul is a symbol of government overreach, and that Americans' freedoms are eroding.

"The reason the economy is an issue in this race is because we have a government that is oppressing its people and taking away their freedom, and the economy is suffering as a result," Santorum said.

But to make such a statement so explicit is unlikely to help Santorum. It is, however, in line with his habit of speaking frankly, sometimes so much so that it draws attention and hurts him politically.

One supporter at the rally inside The Venetian, an Italian-American social hall, noted that the former Pennsylvania senator would "get soundbited on this."

"It might have come out wrong," said Peter Scordato, a 42-year-old who owns three hockey equipment stores. "He's not downplaying the economy."

Scordato said Santorum's point was about the role of government, and that its role in American life has become too big.

Another attendee at the rally said he had been undecided before seeing Santorum talk, but was impressed by the candidate's message.

"He spoke to what's important about America: where we came from, where we're going, how important our freedoms are," said Al Piccirilli, 66, a construction project manager.

"Santorum speaks about what really touches the nerve in people," he said.

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