GOP media strategist Mark McKinnon thinks there are two people in the world who fear Glenn Beck — even if "neither will admit it."
The first is Barack Obama.
The second is Rush Limbaugh.
Beck is on a huge roll. Over the last month, the right-wing Fox News talker has claimed the scalp of the president's green jobs czar; motivated thousands of conservatives to turn out for town hall meetings and a Sept. 12 march on Washington; pummeled Democrats over ACORN and Obama's czars; and landed himself a spot on the cover of Time magazine.
"Beck is the man of the moment," says the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb. "Everybody in town is watching him, waiting to see what he'll do next, who he'll take down next."
But if Beck is the man of the moment, where does that leave Rush?
In an e-mail to POLITICO, Limbaugh said any attempt to compare him with Beck in terms of Washington influence rests on a "flawed premise."
"I do not, and never have, measured my success in ways you describe, such as 'impact' in Washington," Limbaugh said. "I am a broadcaster and judge my success by those standards."
By those standards, the slimmed-down Limbaugh is still large and in charge.
He reaches a much bigger radio audience, with somewhere between 15 and 30 million listeners on more than 600 stations around the country. He's ranked No. 1 on the "Heavy Hundred" list put out by the industry magazine Talkers (Beck is fifth); he tops Mediaite's power grid of radio hosts; and this week, The Atlantic installed Limbaugh and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman atop its list of "the most influential commentators in the nation."
Back in April - when Time put Limbaugh on its annual list of the 100 most influential people of the world - Beck was called on to write the tribute. He wrote that Limbaugh was "on another level" and "attracts more listeners with his voice than the rest of us could ever imagine."
That may still be the case, but Beck's power has grown exponentially since then.
Newsmax president Christopher Ruddy, a conservative journalist who played a role in dredging up scandals during the Clinton years, said that right now, Beck is "the No. 1 populist, conservative voice in the media."
"Glenn's emergence reminds me of Rush's emergence in the early '90s," said conservative radio host Mike Gallagher. "People have asked me, 'Who's the next Rush,' because Rush is the gold standard."
The answer, says Gallagher, "seems to be Glenn."
While Limbaugh once had a television show — produced by Roger Ailes, now Fox News president — he never enjoyed half the success in that medium that Beck has now. Beck's nightly show on Fox News completely dominates the competition, drawing more than a million viewers more than any other prime-time show on MSNBC or CNN.
And Beck is using the power of his show in ways that Limbaugh never has.
"Beck is playing more of a rallying role than Limbaugh has or is," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "Rush is more broad-brush, longer-range in approach, and Beck's gotten specific," Norquist added. "Here's an appointee. Here's the czars."
In the days before last weekend's conservative march on Washington, Beck flogged it repeatedly. He became such a part of the story that, as CNN correspondent Lisa Desjardins tried to report live from the event, protesters drowned her out with chants of "Glenn Beck! Glenn Beck!"
Limbaugh's role in promoting the protest? He said it's not his thing.
"I don't rally people and haven't since the first year of my radio show," he wrote to POLITICO. "At that time, all local talk hosts were attempting to prove their worth by getting people to cut up gasoline credit cards, call Washington, etc. I thought it was cheap and disingenuous. The few times I did, early on, suggest people call Washington, the reaction to it from the media was that the response was not genuine (I shut down the House switchboard) because people only did what they did because 'Limbaugh told them to.'"
Limbaugh hasn’t abandoned the call to action entirely; last year, he launched “Operation Chaos,” urging his listeners to register as Democrats and vote for Hillary Clinton in Democratic presidential primaries to prolong the nominating process and weaken Obama.
But now he suggests that conservatives don’t need any egging on – and he seemed to downplay Beck's role in goosing the turnout for last weekend’s march.
"The rally Saturday was special and important precisely because there was not a single, charismatic leader behind it," he said. "I never mentioned it, on purpose. People are rising up from genuine passion and concern, they are NOT being whipped into a frenzy. This is REAL and not inspired by anyone. This outpouring has been effervescing for years and Obama has brought it all to the boiling point. PEOPLE DO NOT NEED TO BE TOLD. They are living it."
If Limbaugh is suggesting that Beck's influence is overstated, he's not the only one.
Radio host Mark Levin, whose book "Liberty & Tyranny" just surpassed 1 million sales this week, laughed off the suggestion that Beck may be eclipsing Limbaugh as the voice of the right.
"Are you kidding?" Levin said in an e-mail. "Comparing Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck is like comparing George Washington to George Jefferson. Beck can be very entertaining and even informative, but he is neither the face nor the voice of the conservative movement. He is one of many."
And while Ruddy says that Beck is the No. 1 conservative populist now, he's quick to say that doesn't mean Limbaugh is No. 2.
"The rise of Beck doesn't diminish Rush or [Sean] Hannity," Ruddy said, "but he seems to be adding a new subset, a new group of people ... more of the populist, Ross Perot-type voter."
The opposition has clearly taken note. Six months ago, Democratic Party leaders made a concerted effort to portray Limbaugh as the de facto leader of the Republican Party. This week, the Democratic National Committee accused Republicans of "carrying out the marching orders of Glenn Beck and other right wing propagandists," and both People for the American Way and the Center for American Progress Action Fund sent out fundraising appeals invoking Beck's name.