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Republicans Hearing Static From Conservative Radio Hosts

"They are not giving sophisticated answers to sophisticated, penetrating criticisms," Hewitt said. "They're attempting to silence the debate."

But the conservative response to Lott may be symptomatic of a broader disenchantment with the Republican Party, said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, which chronicles talk radio. The immigration debate is a bellwether, he said, but conservative criticism is brewing on issues from education to spending to Iraq. Last week the magazine granted its annual Freedom of Speech Award to Savage for his criticism of President Bush, the first time Harrison can remember honoring a talk show host for speaking out against someone of his own political persuasion.

Republican politicians "assumed they owned conservative talk radio," Harrison said. "But support of conservatives by talk radio was only being borrowed as long as conservatives felt that Republicans served the conservative movement."

Republicans backing the immigration bill were mindful yesterday of Lott's experience -- and contrite. Asked about the radio response, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) joked, "I ain't saying a thing" before adding: "When we want to be on talk radio, we find a way to get on, because we like their views and we like their audience. So when we don't like their message, we ought to be willing to take the pain."

"I think that for many of them, this is the first exposure they have had to an activist response to bad legislation," Hewitt said. "They hear from 1 percent of every population on every issue. Whether it's Social Security reform, whether it's immigration, whether it's the war, they're used to hearing from discrete but very, very activist groups. The immigration bill has swept into the debate literally hundreds of thousands of people who have never picked up the phone."

But to the bill's opponents, it's not about grinning and bearing it, as Martinez is doing. It's about accepting the judgment of the GOP's base.

"Talk radio was sort of the watchdog on this," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "Who else was watching out? Who else was reading the bill?"

"A decent respect for our constituents means when they have very serious problems with an important piece of legislation, perhaps we should back off," he said.

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