Rush Limbaugh has fashioned a pretty fair career by skewering, slamming and otherwise ridiculing Democrats. But is he, as Tom Daschle all but suggested the other day, inciting violence among his listeners?

The conservative radio host has been all over the tube this week accusing Daschle of "whining," while casting himself as a champion of free speech and generally reveling in the attention that the senator has bestowed on him.

"What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren't just content to listen," Daschle told reporters. "People want to act because they get emotional . . . and the threats to those of us in public life go up dramatically, against us and against our families, and it's very disconcerting." He compared Limbaugh's "shrill" tone to that of violent fundamentalists abroad.

That's a serious charge -- and seriously off the mark. Limbaugh is an entertainer with sharp claws, but he is more policy-oriented than many of the people who shout on cable night after night. He doesn't give out phone numbers or urge his listeners to call anyone.

It's not hard to sympathize with Daschle, who's had a tough election and last year received an anthrax-laced letter, over any threats against him and his family. But to try to link the actions of a few crazies to a prominent commentator -- one so "extreme" that he sat next to Tom Brokaw on election night -- only elevates Limbaugh in the eyes of his fans.

Limbaugh can be hyperbolic, even merciless. "What more do you want to do to destroy this country than what you've already tried?" he scolded Daschle last week. "It is unconscionable what this man has done! This stuff gets broadcast around the world, Senator. What do you want your nickname to be? Hanoi Tom? Tokyo Tom? . . . You sit there and pontificate on the fact that we're not winning the war on terrorism when you and your party have done nothing but try to sabotage it."

Tough stuff, but hardly unique in today's partisan "Crossfire" culture. After all, the Democratic National Committee's Web site featured a cartoon of President Bush shoving a wheelchair-bound old woman down the plummeting edge of a Social Security trust fund graph.

What may really rankle Daschle is that Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North and a slew of like-minded local hosts have honed radio into a scathingly effective message-delivery system. They pounded Bill Clinton and Al Gore for eight years before moving on to newer targets such as Daschle and Dick Gephardt. Combined with such powerhouses of the right as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, the New York Post and many Fox News commentators, they have emerged as a real force that is driving Democrats up the wall.

The search for a left-wing Limbaugh has failed -- Mario Cuomo was among those who tried to fill the vacuum -- in part because conservative listeners hunger for an alternative to what they see as the liberal mainstream media. That charge is a bit harder to sustain in an environment in which even liberal columnists such as Frank Rich and liberal magazines such as the New Republic are savaging the Democrats for their lack of an '02 message. Liberals aren't much for talking points.

This isn't the first time that Democratic frustration with Limbaugh has boiled over. In 1994 a beleaguered President Clinton told station KMOX: "After I get off the radio today with you, Rush Limbaugh will have three hours to say whatever he wants. And I won't have any opportunity to respond." A president with no opportunity to respond?

Daschle's charge handed Limbaugh a prime opportunity to turn the tables. "It's against you folks, the entire audience," he told his listeners. "You all now are being characterized as unsophisticated barbarians."

Over the years talk radio has democratized the airwaves, but occasionally also served as a conduit for hate-mongering and unsubstantiated slurs. Daschle is right in saying that words have consequences. High-decibel talkers like Limbaugh ought to be held accountable in the political arena. But those who find him insufferable should get into the ring and slug it out rather than accuse him of urging the crowd to throw sharp objects.

The writer covers the media for The Post.