In the wake of this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee, the snake-lipped demagogue Ann Coulter complained that the liberal media portrayed the event as a parade of freaks rather than as the right-wing Miss America pageant it really was.

“One thing that is overwhelming about CPAC is all of the hot babes,” she said. “[…] The other stations would find the dorkiest-looking person, the most empty room at the convention that had 9,000 participants and fixate on the one dorky-looking person.”

Given that the big story from CPAC was the coronation of shock-jock Rush Limbaugh as de-facto Republican leader, Coulter may have had a point.

Limbaugh has, you might say, a good face for radio. Clips from his CPAC speech show a big-bellied sweaty, shouty fellow in a too-tight sports blazer, ranting like a carnival barker about how Republicans should hope the President failed.

In US political culture, that’s a little like publicly wanting Santa to crash his sleigh. But Rush has always danced to a different beat. This is the man who described the 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton as a “dog”, who mocked the Parkinson-inflicted Michael J Fox for his tremors, who described the Abu Ghraib atrocities as a “fraternity hazing” and who complained, “We are being told that we have to hope [Obama] succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president”.

In the wake of CPAC, the newly elected chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele sought, quite sensibly, to distance the party from Limbaugh. When an interviewer described Limbaugh as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, Steele explained, “No, I’m the de facto leader of the Republican Party” and then denounced Limbaugh’s behavior as “incendiary” and “ugly”. It might be mentioned that Steele is black, and that one of Limbaugh’s recent stunts includes playing a parody song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro”.

But the next day, after a barrage of criticism from Rush’s fans, Steele made a humiliating apology. “I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” he said. “It was one of those things where I was thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently.”

Thus was Limbaugh’s leadership entirely confirmed.

It’s all been an incredible gift to the Democrats. Limbaugh boasts a loyal coterie of dittoheads, so much so that last year, the Clear Channel network renewed his contract for a staggering $US400 million. But in political terms, his base remains decidedly narrow. A poll last year suggested that only 21% of potential voters approve of Rush — and 58% have “cold” feelings towards him. At the moment, by contrast, 70% approve of Obama’s performance, with only 19% disapproving.

The problem for Republicans is that Limbaugh’s supporters provide the party with its activists. These are the people upon whom any Republican candidate relies: the folks who make the phone calls, lick the envelopes, staff the info tables, turn up to events like CPAC. As Steele learned, if you’re a party official, you cross such people at your peril.

At the same time, if you pander to them, you orient yourself to an unrepresentative (and increasingly deranged) right-wing fringe of cable TV populists, frenzied bloggers and unreconciled racists, a tin-hat brigade who genuinely see Obama as an Islamic Marxist coming to fulfill the Book of Revelations. And that’s what the Republicans are now facing.

Since Howard’s departure, the conservatives here have been struggling with a similar difficulty, especially around issues like climate change where the attitudes of the base divulge sharply the broader community. But the problem’s remained on a much smaller scale, probably because the Australian Right is not as ideological.

Ann Coulter was not alone in seeing hotness everywhere at CPAC. Some young enthusiasts (perhaps taking this astonishing CPAC poster literally) apparently found Rush’s tirade so arousing that they shouted at the stage, “Are you single?” For most normal people, however, Limbaugh’s ascension identifies the Republicans with American conservatism at its ugliest.