By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
It may be the best sideshow in presidential politics: the nation's top radio talker trying to take down the Republican front-runner in today's Super Tuesday showdown.
Rush Limbaugh has been relentless in his criticism of John McCain, prompting suggestions that he may have to soften his stance if the Arizona senator wins the nomination and faces off against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But if that happens, Limbaugh said in an interview over the weekend, he would rather see the Democrats win the White House.
"If I believe the country will suffer with either Hillary, Obama or McCain, I would just as soon the Democrats take the hit . . . rather than a Republican causing the debacle," he said. "And I would prefer not to have conservative Republicans in the Congress paralyzed by having to support, out of party loyalty, a Republican president who is not conservative."
When it comes to the McCain mutiny, Limbaugh has plenty of company on the right side of the dial. Laura Ingraham endorsed Mitt Romney last week, saying, "There is no way in hell I could pull the lever for John McCain." Sean Hannity, who also endorsed the former Massachusetts governor, regularly rips McCain. Hugh Hewitt is urging the audience for his syndicated radio show to fight for Romney against what he calls a media-generated "McCain resurrection." But with a program heard on 600 stations, including Washington's WMAL, Limbaugh is the loudest and brashest voice inveighing against the man he derides as "Saint John of Arizona."
Limbaugh dismissed the notion that a McCain victory would be a "personal setback" for him. "My success is not defined by who wins elections," he said. "Elected officials come and go. I am here for as long as I wish to stay. . . .
"Yesterday it was Limbaugh vs. [Donovan] McNabb, Limbaugh vs. Michael J. Fox. Before that it was Limbaugh vs. Bill Clinton. Tomorrow it will be Limbaugh vs. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And I note the media never applies this template to anyone else in media. Not to anyone in cable news, not to any of the endorsements of the major newspapers. Why are the New York Times and Washington Post not asked about the setback they both suffered when George Bush beat both their endorsed candidates in 2000 and 2004?"
Mark McKinnon, a top McCain adviser, called the criticism from Limbaugh and the other hosts "frustrating," saying: "Our question is, 'Isn't it better to get behind a Republican you may disagree with from time to time than work for an outcome that puts a Democrat in the White House with whom you will disagree all of the time?' . . .
"We don't expect Rush to fall in line. We know he's an independent guy, just like McCain. And we know he and McCain will continue to have differences, and we respect those differences."
But McKinnon said he hopes "a respectful relationship can be established" if McCain wins the nomination.
McCain has a history of strained relations with the party's right wing, especially on such issues as immigration, tax cuts and campaign finance reform. Yesterday Limbaugh said the candidate had "stabbed his own party in the back I can't tell you how many times."
McCain's strategists have been quietly reaching out to commentators such as Hannity but don't believe the attacks are costing their candidate many votes, noting that McCain won Florida last week even though Limbaugh broadcasts from Palm Beach. But the campaign yesterday released a letter to Limbaugh from Bob Dole, saying McCain has been a loyal Republican on many issues and that "I proudly wore his POW bracelet bearing his name while he was still a guest at the Hanoi Hilton."
Not all right-leaning hosts are climbing aboard the stop-McCain bandwagon. Bill Bennett, the author and former Reagan administration official, who is neutral in the race, has resisted pressure from his listeners to back another candidate.
"In defending McCain on the grounds that he's a very strong conservative on some issues, I got a lot of flak," Bennett said. "I went an hour and 40 minutes before I got one person who was supportive. I have a center-right audience. A lot of it was very unreasonable. . . . There are more centers of influence now because the party is fractured."
Michael Harrison, a longtime Limbaugh-watcher who edits the industry magazine Talkers, said, "Now that the Bush era is over and the conservative movement has to regroup, Rush has to reposition himself. He's in the game -- that's all that matters." But, Harrison added, "Rush Limbaugh cannot get someone nominated if a critical mass of the public and the tide of history is going in a different direction."
Limbaugh challenged the Republican establishment once before. In the 1992 primaries he helped boost conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan against the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. But after Bush secured the nomination, the president mended fences by inviting the talk-show host for an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.
During the 1994 midterm campaign, Limbaugh and other conservative hosts launched a crusade that helped the Republicans take control of Capitol Hill. When Newt Gingrich became House speaker, he made Limbaugh an honorary member of the 104th Congress.
After 15 years at the top of his game, Limbaugh ran into a series of personal problems. Deafness nearly ended his career until his hearing was restored by a cochlear implant, and in 2003 he went into rehab after admitting an addiction to prescription painkillers.
Politically, Limbaugh remained loyal for much of President Bush's tenure, but after the GOP lost both houses of Congress in 2006, he declared himself "liberated," saying the Republicans had "let us down" and that "I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried."
After McCain won the New Hampshire primary last month, Limbaugh served notice that if either McCain or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee got the nomination, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party. It's going to change it forever."
As McCain has kept winning, Limbaugh told listeners that the liberal media were boosting the senator and "predicting my demise." It was pointless, he said, "to pretend that Senator McCain is the choice of conservatives when exit-poll data from every primary state show just the opposite." In Florida, for example, voters calling themselves "very conservative" favored Romney 2 to 1 over McCain.
Yesterday Limbaugh took on conservative Beltway pundits, such as the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, who have written sympathetically about McCain, saying that for them "it's not about conservatism at all, it's about their own personal desire to matter, to have some influence."
Despite this daily barrage, Limbaugh insisted in the interview that he is not leading a political movement.
"I am not a candidate for president," he said. "It is up to Romney and Huckabee to defeat McCain. My objective is to explain and defend the things in which I believe and inform people. What they do with their knowledge and information is their business. . . .
"If a candidate who is asking me and the American people for his vote isn't particularly conservative on a wide array of issues, I'm going to talk about it. It's not my job to get him elected. . . . I'm in the free speech business. I am not a campaign spokesman. I believe it would be a setback for the Republican Party to attract liberals and independents by being like them in order to attract them."
Limbaugh's role is generating plenty of media chatter. CBS's Bob Schieffer told McCain on "Face the Nation" Sunday that "Rush Limbaugh says you're an impostor." Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer predicted that a Limbaugh-led drive to stop McCain would fail. MSNBC host Tucker Carlson offered McCain this advice: "Wouldn't it just be easier to fly down to Palm Beach and take Rush Limbaugh out to dinner and slobber all over him? Why not suck up to Rush Limbaugh?"
McCain, for his part, has refused to engage with Limbaugh, telling reporters: "I don't listen to him. There's a certain trace of masochism in my family, but not that deep."