The big, less-fat bully

John McCain's supporters are wondering why conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is going after their man.

Published March 4, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Sen. John McCain may or may not replace President Clinton in the Oval Office, but the Arizona Republican and the Democratic president now share at least one experience unique to American politics; they've both been ripped a new one by Rush Limbaugh.

Ever since McCain scored his 19-point New Hampshire victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the conservative talker, heard by nearly 15 million listeners on more than 500 radio stations nationwide, has been shredding McCain hour after hour, day after day. Longtime listeners say for Limbaugh to conduct this kind of sustained scorched-earth policy against a fellow Republican is unprecedented.

And the sharp blows have left more than a few Limbaugh loyalists, who happen to be McCain supporters, scratching their heads in disbelief as the self-proclaimed "Truth Detector" gives McCain the full Clinton treatment; questioning his honesty, his integrity and running parodies that make the senator sound like a stammering, incoherent twit. (By contrast, Limbaugh, a Lincoln Bedroom guest during George Bush's presidency, has found no fault at all with W.)

"There's a real sense of betrayal among McCain supporters," says Chris O'Brien, a Republican attorney from Albany, N.Y., who's been listening to Limbaugh for the last 10 years, and agreeing with the right-wing host "80 percent of the time." "It's not the issue of his disagreement, it's Rush's vehemence," says O'Brien. "He's trying to turn McCain into Clinton, and that's ridiculous. He's just out to get this guy, and I think he's hurting McCain."

While Limbaugh's influence in general elections has proved to be negligible over the years, his ability to seriously damage a candidate during the Republican primary season is far stronger.

"He can have that effect because he reaches activists, the people who are highly motivated to go out and vote," says Randall Bloomquist, program director at news/talk station WBT in Charlotte, N.C., which airs Limbaugh's syndicated weekday shows. Newsday's Paul Colford, who wrote an unauthorized biography, "The Rush Limbaugh Story," agrees: "What Limbaugh has to say during this [GOP] slugfest should not be discounted."

What Limbaugh has been saying on-air is that McCain is a shameless manipulator who's borrowing "the deceitful politics of Bill Clinton." That there's "intellectual dishonesty" flowing from the McCain camp. That "you can't rely on what McCain says," because he lifts policies "right out of the Bill Clinton/George McGovern play book." And that "McCain is the unsuspecting tool of the Rockefeller Republicans who want to reclaim the party from Christian conservatives."

Limbaugh welcomes callers to his show who denounce McCain as "an intellectual bigot" who "lies, lies, lies" and is a man who "has no set core values." Online, at Limbaugh newsgroups, fans are now posting questions about McCain's Vietnam military service ("Has there been any corroborating evidence by McCain's fellow prisoners that he was 'brutally tortured'?") right next to "Is Clinton a murderer?" rants.

"Limbaugh's just beating the hell out of McCain," notes Michael Harrison, the non-partisan editor of Talkers, the talk radio industry bible. "He's found McCain to be a temporary replacement for Bill Clinton. And Limbaugh needs another Clinton just to be Limbaugh. He's an entertainer and he's got a show to do. Talk-show hosts are like movie theater owners -- 'we need new films.'"

Limbaugh's intense dislike for McCain seems to be due to two factors: the media's positive response to McCain, and the support he's attracted from independents and Democrats. When non-Republicans gave the senator a victory in Michigan, Limbaugh decried the, "love-'em-and-leave-'em liberals who, in effect, gave McCain a little Lewinsky." (Limbaugh seemed to have sex on the mind during his post-Michigan analysis: "Watch the media elite have orgasm after orgasm after orgasm over McCain.")

Not surprisingly, Limbaugh sees the liberals-are-taking-over-the-GOP conspiracy at every turn of this primary season. When Joe, an Al Gore supporter from Queens, recently called and pointed out Democrats fear facing McCain in November, the recently slimmed-down talk show host coolly deduced Joe's ruse and announced the caller was trying to trick Republicans, so listeners should take the opposite of Joe's advice.

"It was a double-cross and it was a nice try. But this ain't some local show," Limbaugh crowed triumphantly. (He occasionally allows McCain supporters on the air, but often mocks them after they've hung up, like the McCain backer Limbaugh accused of "parsing his language like [former White House council] Lanny Davis.")

For now, the McCain camp remains mum on Limbaugh, opting to shy away from a public spat. "He's entitled to his opinion," the senator told a Seattle radio interviewer who asked about Limbaugh's relentless attacks. It's a wise move, says Colford: "That's not a good fight to pick, not when he has a microphone that big."

McCain supporters who for years have reveled as Limbaugh lampooned their shared enemies on the left, find the assault on their own candidate bewildering. They insist Limbaugh often contradicts himself, won't own up to botched predictions (just days before the senator unleashed his public attack on Pat Robertson, Limbaugh told listeners "to keep a sharp eye on this, McCain is going to move to the right"), and distorts the candidate's record. Sound like familiar accusations?

"We've documented for years the problem with Rush's logic and facts, says Peter Hart, an analyst with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media watchdog group. "And maybe conservative listeners didn't pay much attention to those distortions. But now that they're hitting closer to home, at least with McCain supporters, it might startle them that Rush plays so loose with the facts."

What also angers some listeners is what they see as Limbaugh's feverish loyalty to the Republican Party. "Rush really has gone overboard in his bashing of McCain, but I guess it's understandable since Rush represents the status quo, and Senator McCain is attacking the status quo," says Tom Abbott, a conservative from Oklahoma who's listened to Limbaugh for years.

"Nobody should be surprised" about Limbaugh's aggressive defense of the Bush candidacy, says Bloomquist at WBT. "When Rush started out he was doing guerrilla radio, the voice of conservative reason. Then Republicans took over Congress and suddenly Rush came down from the mountain and became establishment radio."

No doubt at the outset of his campaign McCain pondered the pitfalls of taking on the Republican powers that be, and plotted ways to get around hostile senators, governors and fund-raisers. The problem is McCain never devised a strategy to combat perhaps the meanest and most influential GOP backroom player of them all: Rush Limbaugh.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Democratic Party George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party