By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Right-wing radio hosts who are influential in U.S. politics expressed alarm on Wednesday at the lead established by Sen. John McCain in the race to become the Republican presidential candidate.
Leading host Rush Limbaugh warned that McCain spelled danger for the party on ideological grounds, and callers to his show deplored his "liberal" views, saying he lacks the bedrock convictions of former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican hero.
Their fears present a stiff challenge to McCain's efforts to unify Republicans along conservative lines.
The Arizona senator won nine coast-to-coast primary races in states on "Super Tuesday" to become the most likely candidate to secure the party's nomination ahead of November's election to succeed U.S. President George W. Bush.
"We are trying to stop the wanton destruction of the party, the wanton dilution of the party," said Limbaugh, whose daily show is syndicated on radio stations across the country.
"We are sick and tired of how the people who seem to be triumphing in our party are precisely the people who seem to be selling this party out in terms of its ideology," said Limbaugh, who criticized McCain for reaching out to Democrats.
Conservatives say they disagree with McCain on issues including taxes, free political speech, immigration and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons.
In one indication of doubts about McCain, evangelical leader James Dobson said this week he would not vote for McCain if he became the nominee, raising the possibility that some Republicans would sit out the November election.
Limbaugh's views on McCain reflect wider disquiet that Bush and Republicans have squandered years in power by failing to institute principles such as individual freedom and small government or to sufficiently write Christian values into law.
They say a McCain presidency would likely move the party further in the wrong direction.
At the same time, many conservatives are angry at what they see as a biased national media that applauds McCain for "moderate" views, relishes division within Republican ranks and misrepresents the influence of talk radio.
Limbaugh is credited with fueling the rise of AM talk radio in the United States and opening the way for popular talk show hosts including Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Neal Boortz.
Hannity said McCain might move to the left if he wins the nomination to try to pick up centrist votes and he defended his own right to point out differences with McCain.
"The problem (with) John McCain ... isn't that he's a moderate Republican. It's worse than that on some issues and that's just a substantive disagreement," he said.
Some see Limbaugh, Hannity and others as extremists servicing an embittered, though powerful, minority. Some commentators said McCain's rise shows Republicans are moving left and the influence of talk show hosts is waning.
But talk show host Herman Cain said the role of talk radio was to influence opinion and not dictate it.
Syndicated talk radio host Neal Boortz, who describes himself as a libertarian, said conservatives should be realistic and recognize that no candidate matched their views.
"I am ... curious about those Republicans ... who are insisting on 100 percent purity in their presidential candidate. That's not going to happen," said Boortz, who voted for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Conservative frustration showed when one caller to Limbaugh said she would vote for Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton if she and McCain were the party nominees. Another caller reacted to McCain's rise by asking: "What the heck is our choice now?"
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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