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Santorum's Bemidji campaign visit to include stop at maker of his sweater vests

he Bemidji Woolen Mills staff poses with the Santorum sweaters handmade at the business. Shown above are employees, in front, Bonnie Bush, Shirley Moe and owner Bill Batchelder, and, in back, George Karels, Donna Willberg, Sue Tammaro, Agnes Jourdain, Natasha Trett, model Bryce Oakes and employee Keith Johnson. Monte Draper / Forum Communications Co.

BEMIDJI, Minn. - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum will bring his "Made in Bemidji" threads and Main Street America message to town this weekend.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, plans an afternoon of public events, including a community photo at the iconic Paul and Babe statues in downtown Bemidji before a speech at the George W. Nielson Convention Center.

"We are very excited to have a presidential candidate coming," particularly in advance of Tuesday's statewide caucuses, said Ken Cobb, chairman of the Beltrami County Republicans. "Just having a presidential candidate in town will increase interest in our caucus."

Currently, four events are planned Sunday afternoon, sandwiched between worship services and the Super Bowl that evening.

Santorum's visit include a 1 p.m. tour at Bemidji Woolen Mills, which is producing sweater vests for his campaign, followed by a stop Cool Threads, which is embroidering the campaign logo on the vests. The community photo and rally will follow.

All events will be open to the public, although space at the businesses will be limited, said Bill Batchelder, the owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills who helped line up the campaign stop. The plant is finishing up an order for 1,000 vests and expects to make another 1,000.

"If there's one thing that's going to define Rick Santorum, it's going to be his 'Main Street America' campaign ... He's doing that through the sweater vests," Batchelder said Wednesday.

Santorum's campaign is giving the embroidered sweater vests to those who donate $100 or more.

The public is invited to the Paul and Babe statues for a community photo that will be taken before Santorum's speech at the convention center, which is attached to Sanford Center.

"The real deal is going to be at the Sanford Center," said Batchelder, adding he thought Santorum might visit after his campaign ordered the sweater vests last month. On Tuesday, Batchelder appeared on WCCO and joked, "If Rick Santorum comes to Minnesota and doesn't visit Bemidji Woolen Mills, I'm going to send Paul Bunyan after him."

The store recently received an order for 481 vests and likely will be called on to make 1,000 vests in addition to the previously ordered 1,000. Batchelder said while the orders mean more work and pay for his employees, it also means more work for other area businesses.

"It's a great study on doing business in America compared to overseas," Batchelder said.

Batchelder said he's received complementary emails from the Santorum campaign about the quality of the Bemidji-made vests. Talks about a Bemidji visit began last week, but the stop was verbally confirmed Tuesday before Batchelder received official word Wednesday morning.

Georgette Bloom, named this week as convention sales manager at the Sanford Center, said those attending the rally Sunday afternoon will need to enter Gate 4. However, the logistics for Santorum's speech are being worked out.

Campaign workers confirmed the tour and the 1 p.m. Bemidji Woolen Mills tour.

The last presidential candidate from a major party is believed to be Pat Robertson, who visited Northern Inn while campaigning for the Republican nomination in 1988.

Santorum was declared the winner in last month's Iowa caucuses. On Monday evening, he visited Luverne, in southwestern Minnesota, in advance of the statewide caucus next Tuesday.

This past Tuesday, Santorum finished third in the Florida primary. Mitt Romney received 46 percent of the votes, while Newt Gingrich collected nearly 32 percent and Santorum received 13 percent.

Cobb, the Beltrami County GOP chair, said local Republican leaders are not endorsing a candidate in advance of the caucus.

He hopes Santorum's visit generates interest in the caucus, especially those who are "upset with the direction of our country."

Cobb also expects a good turnout Sunday.

"Not everyone who goes to the event will be a Santorum supporter," Cobb said.

Still, the visit is good for the community, he said.

"It puts Bemidji on the map politically," Cobb said. "Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, it's exciting."