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Santorum: "I don't care" about unemployment rate

MOLINE, Illinois (Reuters) - Republican White House hopeful Rick Santorum said on Monday he did not care about the U.S. unemployment rate, perhaps the nation's most closely watched economic indicator, despite being embroiled in a campaign largely focused on the still-sputtering economy.

"I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates," Santorum said during a campaign appearance in Illinois, which on Tuesday holds the next contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania known mainly for a strong religious conservatism, is battling Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and the frontrunner in the race to oppose President Barack Obama in the November election.

Santorum used his economic comments to attack Romney as not being a true conservative.

"We have one nominee who says he wants to run the economy. What kind of conservative says the president runs the economy? What kind of conservative says, ‘I'm the guy because of my economic experience that can create jobs?' I don't know. We conservatives generally think government doesn't create jobs," Santorum said.

Romney, who is also a former private equity executive, has made his business experience the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, contending that it makes him the best candidate to steer the economy. His campaign leaped on Santorum's remarks, by saying it added to Romney's contention that Santorum is an ‘economic lightweight." Santorum walked back from his comments later in remarks to reporters. "As far as my political campaign ... of course I care about the unemployment rate. I want the unemployment rate to go down, but I'm saying my candidacy doesn't hinge on whether the unemployment rate goes up and down. My candidacy is about something that transcends that; it's about freedom. It's not about Governor Romney's idea that he is going to fix the economy," he said.

The U.S. unemployment rate is currently 8.3 percent.

(Reporting By Sam Jacobs; Editing by Paul Simao)

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