WASHINGTON — Conservative radio has been rather kind to Donald Trump — despite his shifting and non-conservative positions over the years on taxes, abortion and health care.
The indulgence may be softening.
Two of the biggest names in conservative talk radio ripped a strip off the Republican poll-leader for remarks he's made over the last few days, amid a shifting dynamic in the presidential race.
It occurred on the eve of a Republican primary debate Tuesday that will showcase a new reality: A Trump-versus-Ted Cruz contest for the affections of primary voters.
The catalyst was Trump's decision to attack the Texas senator, whom he'd so far spared. Now with the firebrand conservative surging in Iowa, Trump doled out the same treatment he's dished out to others.
Suddenly, he was attacking a conservative hero. Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin let him have it Monday, in on-air monologues that were either a one-off or the harbinger of a new narrative.
Levin launched into one of his characteristic shouting soliloquies while accusing the billionaire of having committed a "trifecta" of conservative sins: defending ethanol subsidies, criticizing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and calling Cruz a "maniac" for his inability to make friends in the Senate.
"I guess we're all maniacs. Because we're all cheering him (on against other senators)," Levin said Monday evening. "It was a bad two days for my friend, our friend, Donald Trump... A trifecta of stupid moves... So a little ruler-slap on the back of the hand."
Levin added: "I've been a conservative for 45 years. Donald Trump has not. I'm giving him advice."
Trump is relatively popular with conservatives, according to a recent CNN poll. But the defining demographic characteristic is education: He led that same poll by more than 30 percentage points with Republicans who don't have a college degree, while he was in fourth place among degree-holders.
Cruz, on the other hand, is a steady conservative darling.
Now he's getting looks in Iowa, competing with Trump in the polls and even far ahead according to one survey. And Trump responded this week with one of his ad hominem attacks — pointing out Cruz's Cuban-Catholic ancestry, as if to cast doubt on the authenticity of his evangelical Protestantism.
He then suggested Cruz was an oil-industry puppet. This was because the senator had taken a stand against ethanol-content mandates — a risky move in a corn-growing state like Iowa.
And finally, in a Sunday interview, Trump criticized one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court for appearing to suggest during oral arguments that some African-Americans would do better in less-demanding schools, without affirmative action.
Those comments about Scalia and Cruz had a famous radio-personality fuming.
Limbaugh levelled about the worst insult imaginable against a candidate vying for the support of anti-moderate Republicans: he compared Trump to Sen. John McCain.
What especially appeared to annoy him was the suggestion that Cruz was a loner in the Senate — and that he'd be more congenial with colleagues, and get legislation passed.
"This is no different than what the media would say," Limbaugh said.
"This is a guy saying, 'I can cross the aisle and work with the other side.'... He's essentially put on his John McCain hat here. He's saying, 'I'm Donald McCain, and I'm the guy to cross the aisle and work with the other side. Ted Cruz can't.'"
Limbaugh concluded, after mentioning the Scalia comment: "These are things that have to raise some red flags for you, I would think."
Fox News is a frequent target of some of these radio hosts, who find it too mainstream. Levin offered a theory about why Trump got so much airtime on outlets like Fox, despite its brass detesting him.
Ratings, Levin said. Trump brings ratings.
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press