After Michael Steele referred to Rush Limbaugh's rhetoric as "incendiary"--sparking a storyline of "Steele vs. Rush" that spread throughout the blogosphere Monday--Limbaugh unloaded on the RNC chairman in an extended diatribe on his radio show today.

Incendiary? You bet. As I noted earlier, Steele actually defended the thinking behind Rush's desire for President Obama to "fail" during the interview in question--but from Limbaugh's corner, the fight is on.

The back-story: CNN's D.L. Hughley confronted Steele about Limbaugh's speech this weekend at CPAC, in which Limbaugh reiterated his "fail" sentiments and brought down the house at the conservative conference. Hughley also asserted that Limbaugh is the de facto leader of the GOP--a point Steele contested.

"How is that different from what was said about George Bush during his presidency?" Steele said, defending the "fail" sentiment. And then: "Let's put it in the context here. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. His whole thing is entertainment...yes, it's incendiary, yes, it's ugly."

Which sparked chants and headlines of "fight! fight!" around the web this morning.

Rush's response: to throw down. Limbaugh asserted that Steele is not the leader of the Republican Party, the RNC is a failure, Steele wants Obama to fail, Steele is off to a "shaky start" as RNC chairman, and Steele had perhaps underestimated the intelligence of conservatives and of Limbaugh's listeners as a whole.

Some of the choicest quotes from Limbaugh's diatribe:

Michael Steele, you are head of the RNC. You are not head of the Republican Party. Tens of millions of conservatives and Republicans have nothing to do with the RNC and right now they want nothing to do with it, and when you call them asking them for money, they hang up on you. I hope that changes. I hope the RNC will get its act together. I hope the RNC chairman will realize he's not a talking head pundit, that he is supposed to be working on the grassroots and rebuilding it, and maybe doing something about our open primary system and fixing it so that Democrats do not nominate our candidates. It's time, Mr. Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do instead of trying to be some talking head media star, which you're having a tough time pulling off. I hope you figure out how to run a primary system. But it seems to me that it's Michael Steele who is off to a shaky start.

Michael Steele has been around long enough to know that the liberal media will use him by twisting what I say or what others say. He took the bait, he bit down hard on the bait, he launched an attack on me even though the premise of what was said to him was false... Now, Mr. Steele, if it is your position as the chairman of the Republican National Committee that you want a left wing Democrat president and a left wing Democrat Congress to succeed in advancing their agenda...Why are you running the Republican Party? Why do you claim you lead the Republican Party when you seem obsessed with seeing to it that President Obama succeeds? I frankly am stunned that the chairman of the Republican National Committee endorses such an agenda. I have to conclude that he does because he attacks me for wanting it to fail.

If we don't want Obama and Reid and Pelosi to fail, then why does the RNC exist, Mr. Steele? Why are you even raising money? What do you want from us?

Finally, Mr. Steele, we do like to entertain people here. The audience is very smart, sir. They know the difference between entertainment, and they know the difference between deadly serious issues that affect their country. Don't underestimate the intelligence of this audience or Republicans and conservatives generally. The biggest problem with all of you who live inside the Beltway is you look out over America and you think you see idiocy and unsophisticated people, ignorant people, and when you're looking at liberal Democrats, largely you're correct, but your own voters are every bit as informed, involved, engaged, and caring, if not more so than you are. We don't care, first and foremost, about the success of the Republican Party. We care about the United States of America and its future...

Steele and the RNC, for their part, issued a statement before Rush's diatribe (responding to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's suggestion this morning that Limbaugh is, in fact, the leader of the GOP), indicating they see the fight as manufactured:

The feud between radio host Rush and Rahm 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.

According to Greg Sargent at The Plum Line, the RNC is referring reporters to that statement when asked for comment on Limbaught's rant.

Democrats, meanwhile, continue to stir the controversy: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs this afternoon encouraged the media to ask Republicans whether or not they agree with Limbaugh. If such questions are asked of GOP guests on cable TV, as Gibbs suggested, more Republicans will be put in the position where Steele found himself last night.

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