Rush Limbaugh took his show on the road this week, forsaking his main broadcast studio in Palm Beach, Fla., for one in Midtown Manhattan. But the change of scenery did nothing to dampen the Republican-on-Republican smackdown he has been waging from afar against Senator John McCain, the party’s likely presidential nominee, whom Mr. Limbaugh considers too moderate.
As he opened his radio program Wednesday, Mr. Limbaugh lobbed yet another grenade.
“I would like today to announce a tentative decision — I’m still thinking about it — to endorse Barack Obama,” he said, his head cocked slightly toward his 18-karat-gold-plated microphone, his hands spread wide like the wings of his sleek G4 jet.
Mr. Limbaugh then listed nearly a dozen qualities he said he found admirable in Mr. Obama. “Barack Obama is pro-life,” he began. “Barack Obama is a tax-cutter extraordinaire.”
If neither statement was descriptive of Mr. Obama, a liberal Democrat, nor was there much hope for what followed. “Barack Obama will establish a college football playoff, once and for all,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “Barack Obama will offer free-beer Fridays.”
His point, Mr. Limbaugh said, was that Mr. Obama represented “a blank canvas upon which anyone can project their fantasies and desires.”
But implicit in his “endorsement,” however tongue-in-cheek, was this: Mr. Limbaugh, who draws more than 13.5 million listeners a week, considers Mr. McCain to have so betrayed conservative principles by voting against tax cuts and not being as tough as Mr. Limbaugh would like on illegal immigrants that the commentator was openly flirting with the enemy. (Later, Mr. Limbaugh dangled the possibility of endorsing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
In an interview after his show, seated behind the black granite desk from which he had done the broadcast, Mr. Limbaugh held out little hope that Mr. McCain could sway him to his side.
“It’s entirely possible I will go the distance without saying I support a candidate,” he said, still sweating from his three-hour performance, his blue-and-white striped dress shirt untucked and draped over dark dress slacks.
Reinforcing right-wing doubts
The effect of Mr. Limbaugh’s resistance could be substantial, serving, at the least, to reinforce doubts among other conservatives about Mr. McCain, who would seem to need the party’s conservative base to turn out in force in November.
Asked what Mr. McCain might do to change his mind, Mr. Limbaugh said: “I don’t think there’s anything he could do. If he did do it, he would be accused of selling out.” Then, in a familiar baritone as resonant as it is on the air, he added, “If I were to endorse McCain based on the current circumstances, I’d be looked at as a party hack.”
To the extent Mr. Limbaugh offered Mr. McCain any consolation, it was this: “What I can tell you I’m sure of is, I’m not going to be endorsing Obama or Hillary — unless it’s a joke to make a point.”
Taking center stage
In that vein, the daily spankings Mr. Limbaugh has been administering over the air to Mr. McCain are about more than the host’s practiced outrage over the senator’s olive branch to liberals and moderates. Mr. Limbaugh has also seized on the ascension of Mr. McCain to remind the world that his nationally syndicated program still matters and that he has not lost his long-demonstrated penchant for making mischief.
“Folks, can we agree, just between us,” he told his listeners, sotto voce, on Wednesday, “has it not been brilliant how strategically I have inserted myself in this campaign?”
While other conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter have expressed similar reservations about Mr. McCain, neither can claim the reach of Mr. Limbaugh. El Rushbo, as he often calls himself, is heard on more than 600 stations and, according to the industry arbiter Talkers Magazine, has the nation’s largest talk-show audience. It is also noteworthy that this audience remains nearly as big as in 1994, when he helped clear a rhetorical path for Newt Gingrich’s Republican takeover of the House, in an era predating the competition Mr. Limbaugh now faces from the Internet, bloggers and the Fox News Channel.
Conservatives staying home?
Every day since Mr. McCain emerged as the likely nominee in the aftermath of nearly two dozen nominating contests on Feb. 5, Mr. Limbaugh’s switchboard has been lighting up with calls from conservative Republican listeners who say they plan to stay home on Election Day in November.
“What he has got to be concerned with,” Mr. Limbaugh said of Mr. McCain, “is all these Republican voters who say right now they’re so fed up they’re not going to vote at all. That’s deeper than they realize.”
In a sign that broadcasts like Mr. Limbaugh’s could play a role in the November outcome, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, the firms that conduct exit polls on behalf of the television networks and The Associated Press, asked voters in this week’s primaries in Virginia and Maryland whether they were frequent listeners of conservative talk radio. About one in three said they were.
And yet the results in those states suggest that at least some of those listeners do not share Mr. Limbaugh’s concerns about Mr. McCain: though former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas was the most popular candidate among frequent listeners of conservative talk radio in Virginia, Mr. McCain won a plurality of them in Maryland.
Reached Thursday, the McCain campaign’s communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, said she had no comment on Mr. Limbaugh’s criticisms. But the senator’s supporters are concerned enough about where Mr. Limbaugh is leaning that former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas telephoned the commentator privately late last month from the international economic conference in Davos, Switzerland, to preach Mr. McCain’s virtues, Mr. Limbaugh said.
What people in the mainstream media — which Mr. Limbaugh refers to as the “drive-by media”— do not realize, he said, is that he is less concerned with being viewed as a national precinct captain who can deliver blocs of votes, or someone with the power perhaps to scuttle a presidential campaign, than with being seen as a broadcaster who can hold a huge audience.
In for the long haul
And purely as a broadcaster, he said, it will not make much difference whether Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton wins.
“Regardless of who’s elected, there are always going to be liberals who are trying to impose liberalism on the country,” he said. “That means I’m going to be opposing it. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the White House or Congress. They’re always there.”
Asked if having Mrs. Clinton return to the White House would not provide him with maximum fodder, given how much of it he found in the impeachment of her husband, Mr. Limbaugh said no.
By the same token, if Mr. McCain lost, could Mr. Limbaugh not fill any number of hours on the radio by telling his Republican brethren, “I told you so”?
“Honestly, I don’t look at it that way,” he said. “If I were to look at it that way, then I’d be admitting that the entertainment quality of the program or the content in general is dependent on others. And it’s up to me. People listen to this program for me.”
If he has his way, they will not have to give up their habit any time soon. Mr. Limbaugh, who owns more than 50 percent of his show, signed his current contract with his syndicator, Clear Channel, in 2002. That contract, believed to be valued at nearly $300 million, is due to expire in May 2009.
“I have no intention of stopping,” the 57-year-old Mr. Limbaugh said. “I am having as much fun and deriving as much enjoyment out of this today as I ever have.”
Marjorie Connelly contributed reporting.