On the same night he was offering the keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rush Limbaugh drew criticism from an unlikely source: Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
In a little-noticed interview Saturday night, Steele dismissed Limbaugh as an “entertainer” whose show is “incendiary” and “ugly.”
Steele’s criticism makes him the highest-ranking Republican to pick a fight with the popular and polarizing conservative talk show host.
But the new RNC chairman’s extraordinary comments won’t sit well with the millions of conservative listeners Limbaugh draws each week, and Steele aides scrambled to limit the damage Monday morning by trying to change the subject.
“Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats know they lose an argument with the Republican Party on substance so they are building straw men to attack and distract,” said RNC spokesman Alex Conant.
“The feud between radio host Rush Limbaugh and Rahm Emanuel makes great political theater, but it is a sideshow to the important work going on in Washington. RNC Chairman Michael Steele and elected Republicans are focused on fighting for reform and winning elections. The Democrats’ problem is that the American people are growing skeptical of the massive government spending being pushed by Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi.”
Limbaugh, asked to respond, said he’d save his counter-attack for his listeners.
“I’ll handle it on the radio,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Monday on his show, Limbaugh said: "You know who needs a little leadership? Michael Steele and those at the RNC."
"It turns out we're the leaders,” he added. “We're going to have to pick them up and drive them back to their core."
In an interview on CNN with D.L. Hughley, Steele assured that he, not Limbaugh, was in charge of the party before saying that he wanted to put the right-wing talker “into context.”
“Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer,” Steele said. “Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes it’s incendiary, yes it’s ugly.”
Steele’s comments, first noticed by NBC producer Chris Donovan, are sure to rankle Limbaugh in part because they validate the liberal critique of the conservative force: that he’s merely an “entertainer.”
That’s one of the phrases often used by Democrats who seek to diminish Limbaugh. MSNBC’s liberal talk-show host Keith Olbermann, for example, frequently mocks his broadcast adversary as “comedian Rush Limbaugh.”
Steele’s broadside comes as top-level Democrats are working to portray Limbaugh as the face of the GOP and daring anybody in the party to separate themselves from him.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs jumped on an opportunity to discuss Limbaugh Monday, saying at the press briefing that reporters should ask Republicans if they side with the talk show host.
"Do they want to see the President's economic agenda fail?" asked Gibbs of the Republicans, citing the talker's comments earlier this year and over the weekend at CPAC about the Obama agenda. "You know, I bet there are a number of guests on television throughout the day and maybe into tomorrow who could let America know whether they agree with what Rush Limbaugh said this weekend.
A liberal coalition has already aired two ads tying congressional Republicans to Limbaugh and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the conservative is the “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.”
Emanuel also noted that Republicans face repercussions for criticizing Limbaugh.
“When a Republican did attack him, he was — clearly had to turn around and come back and basicallysaid that he's apologizing and was wrong,” Emanuel noted.
He was referring to Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) who last month took a shot at Limbaugh to POLITICO only to appear on his program the next day and plead momentary “foot-in-mouth disease.”
Conant, the RNC spokesman, didn’t say whether Steele would go on the show.
Andy Barr contributed to this report.
WATCH: Limbaugh addresses CPAC on Feb. 28: