- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2012

NEW YORK — The uproar over Rush Limbaugh’s derisive comments about a young woman’s testimony about contraception is serving as a vivid reminder of the large role conservative media stars play in Republican politics.

With a Democrat in the White House and no leading Republican elected official setting the party’s agenda, Mr. Limbaugh and other media personalities such as the late Andrew Breitbart and even real estate mogul Donald Trump have filled a vacuum for many conservatives seeking a full-throated political advocate. The popularity of such figures with the Republican base has made party leaders reluctant to cross them.

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 Obama, was widely criticized recently for mocking NFL quarterback Tim Tebow’s religious beliefs on Twitter. He also had referred to 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin using a vulgar female anatomy word.

But no liberal media figure has an audience the size of Mr. Limbaugh‘s, estimated as high as 20 million listeners per week.

“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 Republican presidential candidates distanced themselves from Mr. Limbaugh but did not repudiate him after he used the terms “slut” and “prostitute” on his radio show in reference to 30-year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.

Ms. Fluke had testified to Democratic members of Congress in support of a requirement that her Catholic college’s health plan provide her with free birth control, which is contrary to the church’s teachings.

Mr. Limbaugh offered an apology to Ms. 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.

Mr. Romney said he wouldn’t have used Mr. Limbaugh’s language, 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 him.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania called Mr. Limbaugh an “entertainer” who had license to be “absurd” sometimes, while former House speaker Newt Gingrich dismissed the matter as a media distraction. Only Rep. Ron Paul of Texas took Mr. 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 Mr. Limbaugh in the past. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was forced to walk back comments he made suggesting Mr. Limbaugh had been “incendiary” and “ugly” for saying early in Mr. Obama’s term that he hoped Mr. Obama would fail.