NEW YORK — John McCain heads into Tuesday's Florida primary facing resistance from not only his fellow candidates, but also from the leaders of conservative talk radio, who some suggest have put their reputations on the line, as well.
Talk radio pioneer Rush Limbaugh said that if McCain or Mike Huckabee are nominated, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party." Mark Levin calls the senator "John McLame." On Monday, Laura Ingraham said she was "concerned about the mental stability of the McCain campaign" and had cuckoo-clock sound effects accompany his words.
"Sen. McCain is a great American, a lousy senator and a terrible Republican," Hugh Hewitt told The Associated Press. "He has a legislative record that is not conservative. In fact, it is anti-conservative."
Yet with McCain winning primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney for the lead in polls in Florida, the top radio personalities are facing the possibility that their words are having little effect.
Radio host Michael Medved said that the big loser in South Carolina was talk radio, "a medium that has unmistakably collapsed in terms of impact, influence and credibility because of its hysterical and one-dimensional involvement in the GOP nomination fight."
Its continued resistance to McCain will be ineffective and will hurt both the Republican Party and the radio industry, Medved said.
The long-running hostility toward McCain stems from his failure to follow conservative orthodoxy on issues including immigration, global warming and money in politics, Hewitt said. McCain's endorsement by The New York Times _ the newspaper conservative talkers love to hate _ was just another indignity.
Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, warned against any conclusion that talk radio hosts would be diminished if McCain were to win the GOP nomination.
"It will give them an opportunity to reposition themselves in a more independent and populist way," Harrison said. Talk show hosts aren't judged on whom they pick as a candidate, any more than the jobs of football announcers are on the line with their Super Bowl predictions, he said.
They're judged on ratings and revenue, and every indication is that the election season will be a boon for talk radio, he said.
Limbaugh picked up on that point on the air last week when he rebutted any analysis by the "drive-by media" that McCain's strong showing had been a rebuke to him. He noted that a chapter in one of his books was titled "My Success is Not Determined by Who Wins Elections."
"You nominate the nominee; I don't," he said. "This notion ... that I've been overcome here, McCain's beaten me back, that's not the way to look at this, because that whole line of thinking relies on the fact that you people have to be perceived as mind-numbed robots and that you are all a bunch of sponges and you sit out there and you have no brain and you have no independent thoughts. You just listen to what I say and you go act on it.
"We know that's not the case," he said. "It's never been the case."
It's a reflection of the muddled primary race that radio talkers are more fixated on whom they don't like _ McCain _ than any candidate who wows them.
"The mood is that everyone offers something and nobody offers everything _ and that's why there is so much confusion," said L. Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative media watchdog Media Research Center.
Hewitt said he would vote for Mitt Romney "if I was voting today," but he's not. He also likes Rudy Giuliani.
If McCain were the Republican nominee running against either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, Hewitt said he would support McCain. So would most of his colleagues in talk radio, he said.
"It's not about taking your ball and going home," he said.