Demands for Limbaugh's sponsors to pull their ads from his show rocketed through cyberspace, and at least three companies, Quicken Loans and bedding retailers Sleep Train and Sleep Number, did so.
Obama considers Limbaugh's remarks "reprehensible," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. He said the president called Fluke to "express his disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate personal attacks" and to thank her for speaking out on an issue of public policy.
"The fact that our political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough," Carney said. "It is worse when it's directed at a private citizen who was simply expressing her views."
Obama reached Fluke by phone as she was waiting to go on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports.
"What was really personal for me was that he said to tell my parents that they should be proud," a choked-up Fluke told Mitchell. "And that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family would be proud of me. So I just appreciated that very much."
By calling Fluke and injecting himself into the Limbaugh controversy, Obama was reaching out to young voters and women - two groups whose support he needs in this reelection year. The White House, despite bungling the rollout of its birth-control coverage policy, sees it as a winning issue.
Fluke was given a chance to talk to Congress on Feb. 23, even though lawmakers were on a break and just a few Democratic allies were on hand to cheer her on. The previous week, a Republican-controlled House committee rejected Democrats' request that she testify on the Obama administration's policy requiring employees of religion-affiliated institutions to have access to health insurance that covers birth control.
Republicans have faulted parts of Obama's health-care law as unconstitutional, including an initial requirement that the president has since withdrawn that contraceptives must be covered under the insurance policies of businesses, including those with religious affiliations.
Fluke said Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, does not provide contraception coverage in its student health plan and that contraception can cost women more than $3,000 each during law school. She spoke of a friend who had an ovary removed because the insurer wouldn't cover the prescription birth control she needed to stop the growth of cysts.
On Wednesday, Limbaugh unleashed a lengthy verbal assault on Fluke.
"What does it say about the college coed . . . who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex?" he said. "It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex."
He went on to suggest that Fluke distribute sex tapes of herself. "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it," he said. "We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
Scores of Democratic members of Congress denounced Limbaugh and urged their GOP colleagues to do likewise.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) said through a spokesman he "obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation."
Later, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the committee that blocked Fluke's original testimony, issued a letter repudiating Limbaugh's comments but also excoriating the Democrats and their supporters.
"I ask that you join me in a broader condemnation of the attacks on people of faith . . . and the regrettable personal attacks that have come from individuals on both sides of the issue," Issa wrote to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.).
Boehner and Issa are among the GOP leaders accused of waging the purported "war on women." The topic has been cited often in recent fund-raising pitches from liberal advocacy groups.
Last month, after a three-day furor, the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer charity dropped plans to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, a leading abortion provider. And after incurring protests and ridicule, Republican politicians in Virginia backed away from a bill that would have required invasive transvaginal ultrasounds as a precondition for many abortions.
Amid this controversy, polls show Obama's support among women has been increasing.
At Georgetown, more than 130 faculty members signed a letter praising Fluke for her "grace and strength" and condemning Limbaugh's remarks. University president John J. DeGioia said Limbaugh and others responded to Fluke "with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student."
Limbaugh scoffed Friday at the concept of a conservative "war on women."
"Amazingly, when there is the slightest bit of opposition to this new welfare entitlement being created, then all of a sudden we hate women! We want 'em barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen," he said. "And now . . . I am the person that the women of America are to fear the most."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential contender, told CNN Limbaugh was "being absurd. But that's, you know, an entertainer can be absurd."