Limbaugh comments overshadow GOP contest

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Intensifying debate over conservative social values — and Republican icon Rush Limbaugh — overshadowed the nation’s economic concerns Sunday as the Republican presidential campaign hurtled toward Super Tuesday contests that could re-shape the nomination battle and shift the direction of the Grand Old Party.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum distanced themselves from Limbaugh, who boasts a huge conservative following and recently apologized for calling a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” on his nationally syndicated radio program. The woman testified at a congressional hearing in favor of an Obama administration mandate that employee health plans include free contraceptive coverage. While religious institutions are exempt, their affiliates, such as hospitals and universities, were at first included in the requirement. Under harsh criticism from conservatives, President Barack Obama later said the affiliates could opt out, but insurers must pay for the coverage.

The GOP framed the issue as one of religious liberty. But Obama’s chief political strategist suggested the Limbaugh’s reaction — and Republicans slow repudiation of his comments — would benefit Democrats in the general election this fall.