Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s description of a Georgetown Law school student named Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her position on employer-funded birth control has Republican strategists concerned that their party and its candidates will experience political blowback — particularly among independent women.

In this Jan. 27, 2010, photo provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, one of six judges for the pageant, speaks during a Miss America news conference at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. (Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau via AP)

“Rush’s attempt to increase his ratings and get noticed again do hurt Republicans,” said one senior party strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly out of wariness of crossing Limbaugh publicly. “Beating up on a college student is not good optics, and refocusing on her argument that this is about contraception instead of getting the focus squarely on the Obama administration’s disdain for religious liberty and the First Amendment ... is simply not very helpful to the cause.”

Limbaugh did not return an e-mail seeking comment on the controversy.

Republican politicians are doing their damnedest to distance themselves from Limbaugh. House Speaker John Boehner called Limbaugh’s comments “inappropriate” . Carly Fiorina, a 2010 candidate for Senate in California and now vice chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, described Limbaugh’s remark as “insulting.” Of Limbaugh, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said: “He’s being absurd, but that’s, you know, an entertainer can be absurd. He’s in a very different business than I am.”

In those two sentences, Santorum summed up the political problem for Republicans that Limbaugh occasionally poses.

Limbaugh’s ultimate fealty is to ratings and his listeners, not to the American public writ large. Limbaugh’s audience eats up the red meat he throws out and loves him for it. It makes them all the more ardent fans and listeners. Controversy is a good thing for him.

Republican politicians have a very different mission than Limbaugh. Not only do they have to win over the sort of conservative voters that make up most of Limbaugh’s audience, but they also have to try to reach out to the ideological middle.

Most of the time, those two differing goals run in parallel. Limbaugh has a massive audience and usually he is saying things and advocating positions that most Republican politicians have no problem willingly associating themselves with.

But there are those moments — and the Fluke back and forth is clearly one — where what’s good for Limbaugh and what’s good for the Republican party are very different things.

While Limbaugh has no formal capacity within the GOP, he is clearly one of the most prominent spokespeople for conservatism in the country. And that prominence means that the negative publicity he is drawing from this incident has the potential to trickle down to a Republican party already struggling to win women voters.

Limbaugh’s comments come on the heels of an extended back and forth in the Republican presidential race — a debate driven by Santorum — about contraception and women’s rights. Even before Limbaugh made his remarks about Fluke, the amount of discussion on birth control had many senior GOP strategists nervously wringing their hands and wishing privately that the presidential candidates would get back to talking about the economy.

Polling, too, bears out Republicans struggles with women — particularly those who identify themselves as independents. Among that critical voting bloc, just 25 percent had a favorable opinion of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Just 30 percent of female independents saw Santorum in a favorable light. By contrast, 53 percent of independent women viewed President Obama favorably.

Any erosion among women is dangerous for Republicans as they look to take back the White House and Senate — and hold onto the House — in November. In the 2008 presidential race, women made up 53 percent of the overall electorate and voted for President Obama by a 13-point margin over Arizona Sen. John McCain. (Men went 49 percent for Obama and 48 percent for McCain.) Four years earlier, then president George W. Bush fought Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) to a virtual draw among women, a key element of his re-election victory.

“The issue is a distraction for sure,” said former Bush White House political director Sara Fagen of Limbaugh’s comments. “But I don’t think there’s any confusion about the fact that Rush Limbaugh speaks for himself, not the party as a whole.”

Republicans have to hope she’s right.