With the campaign primary season in full swing, the most popular conservative voices in talk radio last week seemed to take sides in the crowded Republican presidential field.

And they both canted their opinions as a criticism, as they often do, of the mainstream media.

“The drive-by media is doing everything it can to disqualify the true conservatives on the Republican side,” said Rush Limbaugh on his Jan. 11 show. And by his definition, that meant Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. “What you’re being told is the only two candidates left that have any chance whatsoever are McCain and Huckabee, which is exactly what the drive-bys want. They want [a] liberal moderate nominee.”

Sean Hannity delivered the same message on the same day. “There is clearly an effort [by the media] underway, I think, to convince us, the voters, to go for either, say John McCain or Mike Huckabee,” he said. “If you ask me who are the two more liberal candidates in the Republican primary, I would say, it’s John McCain and Mike Huckabee.”

If the influence of ideological talk show hosts is often mitigated by the fact that their listeners already share their political leanings, a wide open campaign for President offers a rare test. What impact could they have on the primary races?

Last week, cable and radio talk hosts spent a whopping 75% of their time on the battle for the White House, as measured by PEJ’s Talk Show Index from Jan. 6-11. And the two conservative radio talkers with the biggest audiences, (Limbaugh at 13.5 million and Hannity at 12.5 million, according to Talkers Magazine) seemed to be sending listeners clear messages.

Hannity and Limbaugh may hardly be the only voices who have doubted McCain’s conservative credentials, given his maverick positions on everything from immigration to campaign finance. The notion that the socially conservative Huckabee, who has some populist economic views, is a moderate or liberal, is far from unanimous.

“I’ve gotten sick and tired of this whole notion of change,” Limbaugh asserted on Jan. 7. “Even some of the Republican candidates now are picking up on this…The kind of change Mike Huckabee would bring about—not good change. The things that McCain would bring about—not good change.”

Hannity, who also co-hosts a nightly Fox News Channel show, told listeners he personally liked all the GOP hopefuls. But he trained his guns directly on McCain. “He voted against the Bush tax cuts, he voted for McCain-Feingold…he supported…amnesty [on the immigration bill],” Hannity said.

The No. 3 name in talk radio (according to Talkers audience figures), conservative contrarian Michael Savage, has touted his own presidential candidacy. (According to his “web poll,” Savage has received about 52 million online votes urging him to run, a ratio of 91% to 9 %.) On his Jan. 8 program, Savage called the candidates “a bunch of doddering old fools.” But he specifically attacked Rudy Giuliani and the former Arkansas Governor he calls “Hucksterbee.” Yet it was less clear what ideological differences he had with them. He largely criticized them because they would not appear on his show.

“They will not meet you,” he told his listeners. “Frankly, they’re not welcome on this show. Don’t think I need them.”

Virtually no other subject other than the campaign made air last week in the talk universe, at least in the hours monitored by the Talk Index. The second-biggest story (3%) was U.S. tensions with Iran after the close call in the Strait of Hormuz. The third-biggest, also at 3%, was the immigration debate, followed by case of the murdered pregnant Marine, Maria Lauterbach (1%) and domestic terrorism (1%).

PEJ’s Talk Show Index, released each week, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics are most frequently dissected and discussed in the media universe of talk and opinion—a segment of the media that spans across both prime time cable and radio. (See About the Talk Show Index.) PEJ’s Talk Show Index includes seven prime time cable shows and five radio talk hosts and is a subset of our News Coverage Index.

Another major feature of the campaign conversation last week was how the media got their predictions wrong in New Hampshire. One popular theory among talkers was that the press simply doesn’t like Hillary Clinton.

On his Jan. 10 MSNBC show, Dan Abrams listed his “five reasons the ‘inside Washington media’ hate Hillary.” They included everything from “the Clintons are old news” to the theory that some on her staff have “developed a testy relationship with some of the media.”

As the media “analyze and over analyze her [New Hampshire] comeback,” Abrams added, “I think the answer is just that a lot of theme don’t like Hillary Clinton or the Clinton story.”

Liberal host Ed Schultz got at this by teeing it up as a question for guest Elizabeth Bagley, a Clinton friend and former Ambassador to Portugal: “Do you think…she’s been under the [media] scrutiny that other candidates have not had to endure?”

“Absolutely,” Bagley responded, echoing a line that the Clinton campaign had been pushing directly. “I don’t they they’ve scrutinized Barack Obama. No, I don’t think they’ve done to Barack what they’ve done to Hillary Clinton.”

And the same theme was more telegenically illustrated by Hillary Clinton herself in an encounter with Beltway pundit Chris Matthews. Matthews has been widely criticized as anti-Clinton, particularly online. On his Jan. 7 MSNBC program, he aired a clip of his asking a question at a Clinton press conference. The exchange got a bit testy.

After Matthews asked Clinton to appear on his show, she responded by saying, “I don’t know what to do with men who are obsessed with me. Honestly, I’ve never understood it.” Later, she approached him and said, “Oh Christopher, baby,” in a playful tone. He pinched her cheek and she returned a pat on the cheek, and then a light hug. The usually loquacious Matthews seemed a bit flustered, but he flogged it on his show.

He was not the only cable talk host to have a close encounter with a candidate or a candidate’s supporters on the campaign trail. And given that many hosts often cast themselves as newsmakers in their own right, such incidents tend to get a wide airing.
On his Jan. 7 Fox News Channel program, for instance, Bill O’Reilly played a tape of himself engaged in a confrontation with one of Barack Obama’s staffers who, according to O’Reilly, had blocked his photographer’s line of sight at an Obama rally.

“That’s a total violation of press freedom, so I had no choice, ladies and gentlemen, but to uphold the Constitution,” a smiling O’Reilly told viewers, explaining his role in the mini-fracas.

That same night on his Fox show, Hannity aired video showing him being heckled in New Hampshire by Ron Paul supporters angry about Fox excluding Paul from a debate. Hannity told his viewers that he didn’t back down from the unruly group. “They were rude and obnoxious,” he declared. But “we stood right up to them and moved right past them.”

A night later, in a segment captioned “Bill Blasts Lou,” CNN host Lou Dobbs rather proudly broadcast footage of Bill Clinton criticizing him for attacking Hillary Clinton’s immigration policy.

“I don’t understand why Lou Dobbs is against this and keeps calling this an amnesty,” Clinton said.

Dobbs—a relentless advocate for tougher immigration laws who has generated some speculation about his own presidential ambitions—responded by delivering a speech of sorts from the studio that he addressed to the former president.

“We cannot reform our immigration laws if we can’t control immigration,” was how Dobbs closed his soliloquy. “And we can’t control immigration unless we control our borders and our ports. I invite you to consider that syllogism and show me where it’s wrong.”

Dobbs may not end up running for president in 2008. But as a talk show host, that doesn’t mean he can’t debate one.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Top Ten Stories in the broader News Coverage Index

1. 2008 Campaign – 49%
2. Bush’s Trip to the Middle East – 4%
3. U.S. Economy – 3%
4. Iran – 3%
5. Events in Iraq – 3%
6. Missing Marine – 3%
7. Pakistan – 2%
8. Bank of America Buys Countrywide – 2%
9. Tornadoes – 1%
10. Sir Edmund Hillary Dies – 1%

Click here to read the methodology behind the Talk Show Index.