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In GOP Spat, Steele Tries To Take On Limbaugh


These are trying time for the Republican Party. President Obama's election, Democratic control of Congress and now, in exile, a power struggle between Michael Steele, the new Republican Party chairman and Rush Limbaugh, the volcano of conservative talk radio. On cable TV and in the blogosphere, the big question about and among conservatives is who's in charge? NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: If leaders are known for their ability to deliver straight talk, then Rush Limbaugh certainly delivers big time - take his speech to a big gathering of mostly young conservatives in Washington this weekend. He repeated what he said on his own show, that he wants President Obama to fail and wondered why anyone would see that as controversial.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Radio Talk Show Host): That's nothing more than common sense and then to not be able to say it. Why in the world do I want what we just described, rampant government growth indebtedness that has - wealth that's not even being created yet, is being spent. What is in this? What possibly is in this that any of us want to succeed?

GONYEA: Enter RNC Chair Michael Steele, elected to his job just a month ago. He was asked on CNN, the same night, about all the talk that Limbaugh is the de facto Republican leader. Steele disagreed, saying he is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Then came this less than charitable assessment of Limbaugh:

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman of the Republican National Committee): Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh - his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly.

GONYEA: In case you couldn't make it out there in the crosstalk, Steele said the Limbaugh radio show is incendiary and ugly. The radio host was not pleased and let his audience know yesterday on his show - wondering why Steele isn't the one laying out why Obama needs to fail.

Mr. LIMBAUGH: Where are your guts?

GONYEA: Limbaugh goes on.

Mr. LIMBAUGH: I'm not in charge of the Republican Party and I don't want to be. I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in the sad sack state that it's in. If I was chairman of the Republican Party, given the state that it's in, I would quit.

GONYEA: Then, just hours later, came an apology from Steele. He said in a statement, he respects Limbaugh and said his remarks wrongly took the focus from Democrats and their, quote, irresponsible expansion of government. Score one for Limbaugh. Except that the spectators enjoying the bout the most are Democrats - thrilled to see Limbaugh as the modern-day face of the party. Here's White House press secretary Robert Gibbs this afternoon, reacting to the Limbaugh-Steele dust-up.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I was a little surprised at the speed in which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party. Thanks, guys.

GONYEA: Republican pollster Whit Ayres says it's no surprise Limbaugh gets so much attention.

Mr. WHIT AYRES (Republican Pollster): He has a very large microphone.

GONYEA: But, a microphone through which, Ayres says, Limbaugh speaks mostly to the most conservative Republicans, his natural base, while Michael Steele's job is to broaden party support and win elections.

Mr. AYRES: He needs to figure out how to keep the talk radio Republicans energized while simultaneously reaching out to people who are not part of the Republican base, or are part of the Republican base but aren't considered talk radio Republicans. That's a challenge.

GONYEA: Especially since so many of those talk radio Republicans are Limbaugh fans and nobody talks to Rush fans like Rush.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.