WASHINGTON -- A presidential candidate's campaign rhetoric can tell us a lot about what he truly believes, but some of Rick Santorum's language has pushed that to the edge.
The former Pennsylvania senator has built much of his political career as the champion of the GOP's social and religious conservatives, a powerful part of the Republican Party's base. Last weekend he tested just how far he could go with his word choices in a speech in Ohio, a key state in the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries.
In that speech, Santorum criticized President Obama's liberal environmental agenda by saying that his views on that issue reflected "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible," but one built upon a radical belief that that the Earth's needs should be placed above the needs of human beings.
He was questioned about this remark on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, but strongly denied he was in any way questioning the president's religious faith. His focus was solely on the president's radical environmental views, he said.
"We're not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective," he told host Bob Schieffer.
There are people in the social conservative movement who question Obama's religious beliefs (I'm not one of them), doubting that he is a Christian, despite his many assertions and statements to the contrary and his years of membership in a Christian church in Chicago.
So Santorum's rhetorical reference to Obama's theology seemed to give his remarks a double meaning, reminding supporters about those who question the president's true religious beliefs.
"I've repeatedly said I don't question the president's faith. I've repeatedly said that I believe the president's Christian," he told Schieffer.
But it didn't help matters when his press secretary, Alice Stewart, told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Monday that he was speaking about the "radical Islamic policies the president has." She later retracted her remark, saying that she "misspoke."
"I was talking about radical environmental policies, and I misspoke. I regret it," she told The Washington Post.
Still, Santorum's choice of the word "theology" is strange -- especially in the context of a discussion of the environment, though it is true that for some global warming extremists it's become a virtual religion.
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives this definition of theology: "The study of God and his relation to the world, esp. by analysis of the origins and teachings of an organized religious community (as in the Christian church)."
But on Sunday, Santorum campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley stuck by the candidate's use of the word, saying "Theology's a worldview. And Obama sees the world differently."
Throughout his political career, even after he lost his 2006 re-election bid by 18 points, Santorum has not been one to mince words or to soften his rhetoric, especially on social issues.
As a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist after he lost his Senate seat, he went after married women with children who worked outside the home. "For some parents, the purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home," he wrote.
That's quite a stern indictment at a time when so many households were struggling to make ends meet and care for their kids, often on an income that requires a two-earner family just to barely get by.
Someone dug up a speech Santorum delivered at Ave Maria University in Florida on Aug. 29, 2008, in which he warned that the United States was under attack by Satan.
"Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that (have become) so deeply rooted in the American tradition," according to audio excerpts of the speech.
He said Satan has subverted the nation's colleges and universities, the Protestant church, and our culture and politics.
Excerpts were reported on the widely read Drudge Report Wednesday. Rush Limbaugh, one of Santorum's supporters, played segments of the speech on his radio show, saying, "It's just not the kind of stuff you hear a presidential candidate talk about. It's not ordinary in that sense."
Limbaugh said that "Santorum will have to deal with it. He'll have to answer it."
On Sunday, Santorum compared our present elections to the approach of World War II.
"Remember, the greatest generation for a year and a half sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness," he said at a church in Georgia. "We're a hopeful people. We think, 'Well, you know, it'll get better. Yeah, he's a nice guy. I mean, it won't be near as bad as what we think. This will be OK. I mean, yeah, maybe he's not the best guy after a while, after a while you find out some things about this guy over in Europe who's not so good of a guy after all ...'"
He had to defend these remarks Monday when he was asked if he was comparing Obama to Hitler. "No, of course not," he told a National Journal-CBS News reporter. "The World War II metaphor is one I've used 100 times in my career."
People can read all kinds of implications into a speech that the speaker never intended if his words, metaphors or sloppy comparisons leave room for an entirely different interpretation.
A presidential candidate who has to clarify and explain remarks that are peppered with innuendo raises troubling doubts about himself and maybe his agenda.