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GOP chairman Steele backs off Limbaugh criticism

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  • NEW: Kaine says Steele's apology shows Limbaugh is leading GOP force
  • Steele earlier said he, not Limbaugh, is "the de facto leader of the Republican Party"
  • Limbaugh's focus is entertainment, he said. "Yes, it is incendiary. Yes, it is ugly"
  • Limbaugh backs earlier comments in which he said he hoped president failed
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In comments that were broadcast over the weekend, Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele called Rush Limbaugh's rhetoric "incendiary" and "ugly" and insisted that he is in charge of the GOP.

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh spoke before the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.

"Rush will say what Rush has to say; we'll do what we have to do," RNC Chairman Michael Steele has said.

On Monday, however, after a blistering response from the conservative talk-radio kingpin, Steele told the online journal Politico that he "was maybe a little bit inarticulate."

"There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership," Steele said. He added, "There are those out there who want to look at what he's saying as incendiary and divisive and ugly. That's what I was trying to say. It didn't come out that way."

Steele's original remarks came from an interview on CNN's "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News." The interview was recorded Thursday. It aired Saturday.

The comments came as Democrats, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, have tried to paint Limbaugh -- who has said he wants to see the Obama administration "fail" -- as the effective head of the opposition party.

Steele rejected the idea, insisting "I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party."

"Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh's whole thing is entertainment," Steele told CNN. "Yes, it is incendiary. Yes, it is ugly." iReport.com: Limbaugh and Steele show divisions in GOP

Limbaugh fired back on his radio show Monday, saying the Republican chairman appears to be supporting President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He said Steele appears "obsessed with seeing to it President Obama succeeds."

"I frankly am stunned that the chairman of the Republican National Committee endorses such an agenda," Limbaugh said. "I have to conclude that he does, because he attacks me for wanting it to fail."

But Monday night Steele told Politico he didn't intend to go after Limbaugh.

"My intent was not to go after Rush -- I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh," Steele told Politico in a telephone interview. "I was maybe a little bit inarticulate ... There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership." Video Watch CNN's Roland Martin and panel discuss the situation »

Steele told Politico he tried to call Limbaugh after the show on Monday and said he hoped he would be able to talk to the radio host soon.

"I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren't what I was thinking," Steele told Politico.

"I'm not going to engage these guys and sit back and provide them the popcorn for a fight between me and Rush Limbaugh."

And in a written statement issued to CNN, Steele said, "To the extent that my remarks helped the Democrats in Washington to take the focus, even for one minute, off of their irresponsible expansion of government, I truly apologize."

"I respect Rush Limbaugh, he is a national conservative leader, and in no way do I want to diminish his voice," Steele said. "I'm sure that he and I will agree most of the time, but will probably disagree some as well, which is fine."

Steele's Democratic counterpart, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, said he was "briefly encouraged" by Steele's "courageous" remarks.

"However, Chairman Steele's reversal this evening and his apology to Limbaugh proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics and its obstruction of President Obama's agenda in Washington," Kaine said in a written statement.Video Watch Steele, Hughley talk politics »

Limbaugh brought a cheering crowd to its feet several times as he called on fellow conservatives to take back the country.

He used his self-described "first national address," which ran more than an hour longer than his allotted 20 minutes, to accuse President Obama of inspiring fear in Americans in order to push a liberal agenda of "big government."

Limbaugh also addressed comments he made earlier this year in which he said he hoped Obama failed.

"What is so strange about being honest and saying I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and re-form this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?" he said.

But a top Republican in Congress disagreed.

"I don't think anyone wants anything to fail right now," House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said on ABC's "This Week." "We have such challenges. What we need to do is we need to put forth solutions to the problems that real families are facing today."

RNC spokesman Alex Conant on Monday did not directly address Steele's comments about Limbaugh but pointed out the back-and-forth between the White House and the conservative radio host.

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"Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats know they lose an argument with the Republican Party on substance, so they are building straw men to attack and distract," he said. "The feud between radio host Rush and Rahm makes great political theater, but it is a sideshow to the important work going on in Washington.

"RNC Chairman Michael Steele and elected Republicans are focused on fighting for reform and winning elections. The Democrats' problem is that the American people are growing skeptical of the massive government spending being pushed by congressional leaders like [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi," Conant said.

All About Michael S. SteeleRush LimbaughRepublican National Committee

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