Mike Huckabee

Soaring candidates in '08

If Mike Huckabee has said it once, he has said it a thousand times during his bid to reach the White House.

"I have a great respect for Barack Obama," noted Huckabee, during a "Tonight Show" visit. "I think he's a person who is trying to do in many ways what I hope I'm trying to do and that is to say, 'Let's quit what I call horizontal politics.'

"Everything in this country is not left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who is vertical, who is thinking, 'Let's take America up and not down.' "

This is how the Southern Baptist pastor tweaked his "vertical" credo on "Meet the Press," facing journalist Tim Russert: "There has been a huge cultural shift in this country, Tim. And I think that's why many Americans are seeking leadership that has a positive and optimistic spirit. ... I think the American people are hungry for vertical politics, where we have leaders who lift us up rather than those who tear us down."

The former Arkansas governor has used the word "vertical" so many times that enquiring politicos want to know: What's "up" with this guy? Some worry that, as critic Josh Marshall put it, Huckabee is sending a "clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God?s politics."

This kind of uplifting, vaguely spiritual language may make some people uncomfortable, but there is nothing unusual about it, according to former White House insider Michael Gerson, the evangelical scribe who helped craft the early speeches of President George W. Bush.

"Making use of these kinds of non-sectarian religious references is, itself, the great tradition of American political speechmaking," said Gerson, who is now a Washington Post opinion columnist. "As a speechwriter, when I hear this kind of language it tells me that someone is trying to describe a politics of idealism and aspiration. It's a kind of bringing-America-together language and there is certainly nothing new about political leaders trying to do that."

In fact, there is another candidate in the race who has been using large doses of religious imagery. As Huckabee has noted, Sen. Barack Obama has created some non-horizontal language of his own during his quest to find a truly "post-partisan" politics.

"We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House," said Obama, after his primary victory in South Carolina. "But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose -- a higher purpose. ? This election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again."

Clearly, Gerson noted, Obama feels comfortable talking about his Christian faith as he discusses his own political goals and beliefs.

It's hard to fake this. Obama feels comfortable enough to use biblical images in a wide variety of settings, whether he is making a high-profile speech or chatting with voters after Sunday services.

"I don't believe, in his case, that this is someone who is unfamiliar with religious language, but trying to adapt it all of a sudden for political reasons," said Gerson.

This is also true for Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who uses his deep knowledge of Bible Belt language as a way to connect with conservative believers -- especially African-Americans -- as well as with religious and political progressives. And Hillary Clinton is very comfortable talking about her United Methodist faith, noted Gerson. However, her "sincere liberal mainline Protestant beliefs" may not connect with as many people who worship in other pews.

Meanwhile, Obama and Huckabee will continue trying to find faith-based words that unite, rather than divide.

When it comes to language, "they are the soaring candidates," said Gerson. "They are trying to claim the higher ground that says they are above the vicious partisanship of the whole Clinton-Bush era."

They are not the first to blaze this trail. As an articulate idealist once put it: "I suggest to you there is no left or right, only an up or down."

That was Ronald Reagan, in the 1964 speech that launched him into national politics. He went on to win his share of votes in church pews.