Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said on Sunday that he's glad Rush Limbaugh apologized for calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut," although he still disagrees with Fluke's argument that employers or insurers should be required to cover contraception.
"I think it was appropriate for Rush to apologize and I'm glad he apologized," Gingrich said on NBC's "Meet The Press," only after being pressed on the issue multiple times by host David Gregory.
He then downplayed the contraception debate, pushing the conversation instead toward the issue of religious freedom.
"Nobody's blocking anyone from having access to contraception. No one," he added. "The young lady who testified can get access to contraception -- nobody said she couldn't. The question is should a Catholic institution, or the Ohio Christian University, which is a protestant institution and a very pro-life institution, be told it will have to pay for abortion pills?"
In fact, "abortion pills" are not included under President Barack Obama's contraception mandate, and faith-based institutions such as Ohio Christian University will be exempt under the new rule from having to pay for contraception coverage. Proposed legislation that Gingrich supported and that Senate Democrats defeated last week would have allowed any employer to refuse to cover contraception or any other health service for "moral reasons."
When Limbaugh criticized Fluke for "having so much sex she can't afford it," he effectively undermined the Republicans' adamant argument that their opposition to the birth control rule was not about women's health or sexuality, but was actually only about religious liberty and the First Amendment. While GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and now Newt Gingrich have all come out with tepid and vague criticisms of Limbaugh's remarks, none of them has unequivocally and angrily repudiated Limbaugh the way Democrats have.
Conservative commentator George Will said on "This Week" that he believes "Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh."
“[House Speaker John] Boehner comes out and says Rush’s language was inappropriate. Using the salad fork for your entrée, that’s inappropriate. Not this stuff,” Will said. “And it was depressing because what it indicates is that the Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they’re afraid of Rush Limbaugh.”
Conservative political strategist Matthew Dowd said he agreed. "I think they don't have the courage to say what they say in quiet, which is, they think Rush Limbaugh is a buffoon," he said. "They don't think he's helpful in this marketplace. Nobody takes him seriously. If I were Mitt Romney, I would stand up and say, we need to change the political discourse in this country. Whatever words we use on the left or the right we need to change the political discourse."