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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House has seen the enemy, and his name is Rush Limbaugh.
President Barack Obama's team is helping lead an effort to cast Limbaugh, a polarizing, conservative talk radio show host, as the Republican Party's new face, using campaign-style attacks against a high profile target.
Democrats are taking advantage of a power void within the Republican Party now that George W. Bush has passed from the scene.
The goal is to convince Americans that the popularly known "Grand Old Party" of Abraham Lincoln is a shell of its former self and in the grip of its most narrow, right wing, in hopes of making independents and moderates think twice about switching allegiance.
And Limbaugh, whose three-hour daily show has the largest radio talk show audience in the country, is loving it. He is reveling in the opportunity to generate a wider audience to hear his views, demanding Obama debate him after saying he hoped Obama fails.
"They need a demon to distract and divert from what their agenda is," he declared on his show. "They need a demon about whom they can lie so as to persuade average Americans that they're the good guys.
Democrats say Limbaugh, one of the more inflammatory U.S. political commentators, had it coming to him.
During an 85-minute speech to a conference of conservatives in Washington on Saturday, he said he wanted Obama to fail, "if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation."
The White House calculated that Americans would see Limbaugh's attack as out of step with those voters who propelled Obama into office in November's election, who give him high job approval ratings and want him to succeed.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former member of the U.S. Congress, told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that Limbaugh "is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs followed up on Monday, telling reporters they should ask Republicans "whether they agree with what Rush Limbaugh said....Do they want to see the president's economic agenda fail?"
Obama's former campaign manager, Democratic consultant David Plouffe, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post that congressional Republicans who voted against a $787 billion economic stimulus plan "have let their strategy be guided by their most conservative base."
If Republicans stick with this strategy, he said, "We may find out what it means for a political party to hit rock bottom."
The bombastic Limbaugh, 58, is a conspicuous target.
In a country where conservative talk radio is so widespread that congressional Democrats have pondered how to rein it in, Limbaugh is preeminent. Last year he signed an eight-year extension to his contract worth a reported $400 million.
He is beloved by conservatives but viewed skeptically by many Americans for controversial statements such as his 2006 pronouncement that popular actor Michael J. Fox was exaggerating the effects of his Parkinson's disease.
Republicans have been careful to avoid riling the influential Limbaugh, with new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele apologizing to him after saying he sometimes delivered an "incendiary" and "ugly" message.
Still, Republicans were smarting from the White House attack and accused Obama's team of trying to distract attention from Democrats' high-spending ways, such as the economic stimulus plan, a $3.55 trillion budget proposal, and a $410 billion omnibus budget bill larded with pet projects.
"My theory is they would rather have the argument with Rush than with the congressional Republicans over the substance of the stimulus, the omnibus or the Obama budget," said Karl Rove, who was President George W. Bush's political adviser. "This is misdirection."
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said the Democrats were setting Limbaugh up as the voice of Republicans "which is very smart from their perspective."
"By branding the most conservative major voice as the voice of the entire Republican Party, it makes it exceedingly difficult, if they are successful, for Republicans to reach out to independents and other Republicans who are nowhere near as conservative."
Democratic strategist Bud Jackson said any time Obama's team can cause friction between the right-wing part of the Republican Party and its more moderate core supporters, "it's a net victory."
"I'm sure they're just trying to have a little bit of fun and keep the Republicans divided," Jackson said.
Editing by David Storey