NEW YORK – The uproar over Rush Limbaugh's derisive comments about a young woman's sex life is serving as a vivid reminder of the outsize role conservative media stars play in Republican politics.
With a Democratic president in the White House and no leading GOP elected official setting the party's agenda, Limbaugh and other media personalities like the late Andrew Breitbart and even Donald Trump have filled a vacuum for many conservatives seeking a full-throated political advocate. The popularity of such figures among Republican core voters has made party leaders reluctant to cross them, even when their comments or tactics steer well out of bounds.
Democrats have plenty of left-leaning media figures in their corner, too – some of whom have made comments that have embarrassed the party and its candidates. Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to a super PAC that supports President Barack Obama, was widely criticized recently for mocking NFL quarterback Tim Tebow's religious beliefs on Twitter.
But no liberal media figure has an audience the size of Limbaugh's, estimated as high as 20 million listeners – mostly men – per week. And no one suggests Maher or any other commentator has displaced Obama as the voice of the Democratic Party.
"The voices you hear on the conservative side have an audience of people who are very skeptical of traditional mainstream media and power," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington who studies media in politics. "If you're a Republican candidate you don't want to offend those people. They are the most hard-core Republican voters and the most likely to turn out in a primary."
Such was the case last week, when the top GOP presidential candidates distanced themselves from Limbaugh but did not directly criticize him after he called 30-year old Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" on his radio show. Fluke had testified to Democratic members of Congress in support of a requirement that health care companies provide coverage for contraception. That requirement would compel her Jesuit college's health plan to cover her birth control.
Limbaugh offered an apology to Fluke on his website Saturday after sponsors began suspending advertising on his show, which is carried by 600 stations and is by far the most popular talk radio program in the U.S. He voiced regret on the air on Monday, too, but also said he was the victim of a double standard. He said, "Rappers can say anything they want about women. It's called art. And they win awards."
The controversy has been an inopportune tempest for Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, who has tried to focus on jobs and the economy but has found himself dealing with questions about social issues in recent weeks.
Romney said he wouldn't have used the language Limbaugh chose, but he refrained from directly criticizing him. The former Massachusetts governor has struggled in his efforts to cement his status as the front-runner in the field, in part because of the reluctance of many conservative voters to get behind his candidacy.
Rick Santorum called Limbaugh an "entertainer" who had license to be "absurd" sometimes, while Newt Gingrich dismissed the matter as a media distraction. Only Ron Paul took Limbaugh to task, telling CBS' "Face the Nation" that the commentator's language went over the top at times.
Republicans have paid a price for offending Limbaugh in the past. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was forced to walk back comments he made suggesting Limbaugh had been "incendiary" and "ugly" for saying early in Obama's term that he hoped Obama would fail.
The GOP presidential contenders and other Republicans joined in paying tribute last week to Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Internet pioneer who passed away Thursday at 43.
Breitbart was a hero to many conservatives for operating a group of right-leaning websites designed to expose bad behavior by Democrats and liberal groups, even though he sometimes used selective editing and other unorthodox tactics to do so.
Breitbart's biggest success was the resignation of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, a fiery Democrat forced to step down after Breitbart intercepted and publicized a suggestive photo Weiner had sent of himself to a woman over Twitter.
Breitbart was also involved in a controversial sting against the liberal community organizing group ACORN that helped bring about the group's demise. Two young conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute shot video that appeared to show ACORN workers instructing them on how to cheat on taxes and avoid child prostitution laws. Legal investigations in California and New York concluded the tapes had been heavily edited.
Breitbart was also instrumental in the ouster of Shirley Sherrod, an Obama appointee in the Department of Agriculture. Breitbart publicized a video clip of Sherrod, who is black, addressing an NAACP meeting in which she appeared to be condoning anti-white practices by the department. She was immediately fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, even though her comments had been pulled out of context in the clip and misrepresented. Obama called Sherrod to apologize, and she filed a lawsuit against Breitbart.
That wasn't mentioned as one Republican leader after another weighed in to praise Breitbart.
"Ann and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Andrew Breitbart: brilliant entrepreneur, fearless conservative, loving husband and father," Romney tweeted.
Gingrich called Breitbart "the most innovative pioneer in conservative activist social media in America," while Santorum called his death "a huge loss for the country and the conservative movement."
Trump, the real estate mogul and host of the reality show "Celebrity Apprentice," has risen to become another leading voice in the Republican Party. Trump considered running for the GOP nomination last year and his tough, anti-Obama message helped him rise briefly to the top of polls.
But Trump ventured out on a limb, aligning with the discredited "birther" movement that claimed Obama was not been born in the United States and thus is ineligible to be president.
The furor Trump unleashed led Obama to release his long form birth certificate, showing he had indeed been born in 1961 in Hawaii. Obama labeled Trump a "carnival barker" and skewered him in a dinner speech a few days later.
Trump eventually chose not to run for president and was embraced by the other GOP hopefuls, most of whom ventured to Trump's office in Manhattan to seek his advice and endorsement. Trump endorsed Romney last month in Las Vegas and has been campaigning for him.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this story.