A YEAR ago, conservative talkmeister Rush Limbaugh was on top of the world.
His syndicated daily radio show was reaching almost 20 million listeners a week. His television talk show and newsletter were flourishing. His autobiography was selling at a record pace. And Americans across the country were gathering at ``Rush Rooms'' in restaurants to share the Limbaugh experience.
Here in Washington, the Rush Room at Blackie's House of Beef closed three months ago - ``It was getting quiet,'' says a Blackie's employee - and radio listeners have declined in some major markets. But in other ways, the Limbaugh juggernaut rolls on. His radio show is now on 659 stations, 40 more than last year, and his TV show is now on 250 stations in the United States and Canada. Nationwide listenership is at 20 million weekly, says Kit Carson, Mr. Limbaugh's chief of staff. By comparison, conservative talker Pat Buchanan reaches 428,000 people a week and has just been canceled by WRC-AM radio here in Washington, a market no political talk show wants to miss.
But for Limbaugh, life on top has brought changes: To an increasing degree, he has to be careful about the truthfulness of his statements.
``My opinion is, he's reached a point of critical vulnerability,'' says Michael Harrison, editor of a newsletter on talk radio called Talkers. ``He can now lose credibility.''
Mr. Harrison says the two forces Limbaugh has to be most careful of are himself and ``the liberals who have begun to coordinate their efforts to wage a public opinion war'' against him.
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal, New York-based media watchdog organization, hit pay dirt in June when it published a report detailing alleged factual errors and contradictory statements by Limbaugh on the air. Limbaugh, for example, had claimed that students at Chelsea Clinton's school were assigned an essay called ``Why I feel guilty being white.'' Limbaugh had claimed his source was CBS News, but CBS never reported on it. FAIR's objection was that Limbaugh reported a false story and misstated his source. The New Republic magazine also has published two articles since May alleging Limbaugh inaccuracies.
And as a followup, FAIR has just published in the September/October issue of its newsletter EXTRA! an article charging Limbaugh with making ``inaccurate responses to charges of inaccuracy.''
The allegations have reached mainstream consciousness. The Benchmark Company, a media research firm based in Austin, Texas, recently surveyed 538 talk-radio listeners across the country and found that 78 percent of respondents were aware of the so-called ``truth detector'' controversy. But 65 percent said it had not changed their opinions. Ten percent said their opinion had changed for the worse, and 3 percent said they thought better of him.
Overall, Benchmark concluded that public opinion on Limbaugh was polarized. Sixty-five percent of respondents said he does not always tell the truth, while 28 percent said he always tells the truth.
FAIR's resident Limbaugh-watcher, Steven Rendall, says the group's report was designed to sensitize the press, and he believes they've succeeded. ``The press's attitude has changed,'' he says. ``It's more on guard about him.''
Perhaps as a reflection of this changing view, The Washington Post published last Sunday an anti-Limbaugh article by conservative commentator Cliff Kincaid, the biggest attack on Limbaugh from the right to date.
Mr. Kincaid questioned Limbaugh's credibility as a critic of Clinton on issues such as the Vietnam draft (Limbaugh managed to avoid it) and marriage (Limbaugh's on his third). He charged Limbaugh with manipulating the so-called Christian Right, moderating his tone (no more references to ``feminazis,'' for example), and consorting with the ``Hollywood Left'' he had railed against by appearing on the sitcom ``Hearts Afire,'' which is produced by friends of the Clintons.
Kincaid seemed to have personal reasons for trashing the talk show host: Last November, Limbaugh had said unkind things about him on the air and has yet to apologize, he charges.
When asked to comment, Mr. Carson, Limbaugh's aide, said he was not familiar with the content of Kincaid's column.
William Kristol, director of a Republican policy group and former Vice President Dan Quayle's former chief of staff, says he feels Kincaid was judging Limbaugh by ``extreme standards'' and that he's not aware of any conservative unhappiness with Limbaugh. ``He's plenty conservative for me,'' says Mr. Kristol.
Kristol repeated a common conservative refrain, that Limbaugh is very useful to their movement as a purveyor of information, almost a Wall Street Journal editorial page of the airwaves.
``He's right now the leading transmitter and popularizer of conservative ideas and themes,'' says Kristol.