Rush Limbaugh has been Topic A in the political world, with Republicans debating his influence on their party and Democrats trying to elevate the conservative radio host to the GOP's de facto spokesman.
The skirmish has cast a bright light on the GOP and its search for leadership in the Obama era. But the personality-driven diversion has deflected attention from the deeper problems the party faces.
Simply put, the public isn't buying what Republicans are selling right now.
Popularity at near historic lows
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this past week put Republican popularity at near historic lows. Just 26 percent in the survey viewed the party positively, compared with 68 percent for President Barack Obama, despite the economic crisis and sharp GOP criticism of his $3.8 trillion budget plan.
Republicans trailed by more than a 30-point margin on the question of which party is best positioned to end the recession.
Congressional Republicans did show remarkable near-unanimity in opposing Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan. Yet party leaders have proved less successful in articulating a competing message on the economy. Their call for smaller government and further tax cuts has rung hollow with the public, a majority of whom believe sizable federal intervention is necessary to improve the country's bleak financial condition.
Electorally, the GOP faces an environment that is uncertain at best and challenging at worst.
Republicans are optimistic about their chances this fall in the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, where Democrats now are in office. But the situation is more complicated in 2010, when the GOP is defending four open Senate seats, including two in powerhouses Florida and Ohio. Both are important presidential states that swung to Obama in 2008.
Costly primary in Pennsylvania
Republicans also may have to contend with a costly Senate primary in Pennsylvania between incumbent Arlen Specter and conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey. In addition, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has courted potential candidates in Kentucky, fearing that incumbent Jim Bunning may be in danger.
The party's up and coming leaders have stumbled a bit as well.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential presidential contender in 2012, was widely panned after his nationally televised response to Obama's address to Congress last month.
Jindal and other Southern governors, including South Carolina's Mark Sanford and Mississippi's Haley Barbour, have drawn flack for refusing money from Obama's economic stimulus plan to help expand unemployment benefits, even though their states have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, has avoided the spotlight amid complaints in her state that she had been too focused on developing her national profile.
Democrats have their share of political headaches, most notably Illinois Sen. Roland Burris. He has refused to step down after acknowledging he had tried to raise money for the state's former governor, Rod Blagojevich, who appointed Burris to the seat before being impeached and removed from office.
In New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, recently appointed to the Senate seat left vacant when Hillary Rodham Clinton was named secretary of state, may face a serious primary challenge in 2010.
'A situation that is not enviable'
Still, little on the Democratic side compares with the Republican Party's challenges.
"We are in a situation that is not enviable," longtime New Hampshire GOP activist Tom Rath said. "We don't control the White House, either house in Congress, and we don't have a huge number of governors. And we had eight years where President Bush set the tone for the party."
Luckily for the GOP, many of those problems were obscured this past week by the Limbaugh flap.
To be sure, lots of Republicans are furious their party got bogged down in a fight over Limbaugh, a bombastic bomb thrower who repeatedly has declared he hopes Obama's economic policies will fail.
Party leaders reluctant to criticize
Party leaders are reluctant to criticize a radio host who commands an audience of 13 million largely Republican listeners per week. But Limbaugh is a polarizing figure who has limited appeal beyond the party's most conservative base.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sharply criticized White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who kicked off the anti-Limbaugh strategy last weekend by calling Limbaugh "the voice and intellectual force and energy" driving the GOP.
"As long as Rahm Emanuel is in the White House, it's a Nixon White House," Gingrich said in an interview. Gingrich said the effort to tie Republicans to Limbaugh was "a totally cynical and divisive ploy that undermines what Obama has said about being bipartisan."
'Fingernails on a blackboard'
Other leading Democrats were part of the chorus as well. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote a newspaper column comparing Limbaugh to "fingernails on a blackboard."
Limbaugh seemed to relish the brouhaha. On Wednesday, he invited Obama to debate him and offered to pay the president's way to his radio studio in Florida.
Sanford, the South Carolina governor and a potential 2012 presidential contender, dismissed the tussle over Limbaugh as "political theater" that had little relevance to most people's lives.
"It's all secondary to the larger question of whether people, on a gut level, feel the country's headed in the right direction and whether there are answers coming from both political parties that help them with issues that impact their lives," Sanford said.
Gingrich has started a new Web based group, AmericanSolutions.com, to help Republicans think creatively about issues such as financial markets, the environment and science and technological innovation.
He praised several GOP leaders as promising new voices for the party, including Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Kevin McCarthy of California and Mike Pence of Indiana.
High praise for Jindal, Palin
And he had high praise for Jindal and Palin, whom he called "very smart" with a promising future.
"Think of the Republican Party as a tapestry where there are many threads," Gingrich said. "This is a tapestry that will emerge with tremendous strength and coherence."
Still, the challenges are such that the GOP chairman, Michael Steele, pledged in a radio interview to put the GOP on a "12-step program" to cure it of its ills. That came after he was forced to apologize to Limbaugh for calling his message "incendiary and ugly."
No less the Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, said this past week that the party was on the ropes.
"We just lost two elections in a row, big time. Let's get together," McCain told Fox News.