Bret Baier is the new face of Election Night coverage at Fox News

There is no shortage of big political stories in the midterm election season that includes Tuesday night's Maryland primary. Will control of Congress shift from Democrats to Republicans? How many statehouses will change hands?

But there are also some large media stories involving the TV journalists who will be bringing election news to millions of viewers. And one of the biggest involves Bret Baier, anchor of the nightly Fox News program "Special Report with Bret Baier."

Baier steps up this fall as lead political news anchor on Election Night replacing Brit Hume, who moved after the 2008 elections to the role of senior political analyst. Given the way Fox News has come to lead in ratings for coverage of political events since CNN's glory days during the presidential campaign of 2008, Baier's ascension makes for a significant changing of the guard in broadcast journalism. The seat he now occupies in Fox's Washington studios is one of the most influential in American political life — a fact not lost on the boyish-looking anchorman who turned 40 on Aug. 4, which also is President Barack Obama's birthday.

"I dreamed of taking over for Brit Hume — I really did," says Baier, who joined Fox News in 1998 as a bureau reporter in Atlanta. "And when I thought about what I really wanted to do with my career, it was to cover politics at a time when people were really interested in politics. And this is that time. The TV business is often like a ladder where you're always thinking about the next rung. I'm not anymore. I'm thinking about the next show. I feel incredibly blessed to be where I am at this point in my life."

The point at which the former Fox News White House correspondent finds himself already includes signs of his new status. He has been invited for the first time in his career to moderate a televised debate — a role more often reserved for the likes of Jim Lehrer or Bob Schieffer of public and network TV. This one will be held Oct. 4 in Hartford, Conn., in a hotly contested race between Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon for a U.S. Senate seat.

"This is a first for me to moderate a debate, and I'm incredibly excited about it," Baier says. "Look, this whole election is going to be one of the most-watched midterm elections in recent memory, and I feel the responsibility of all that in this new role."

Given the reality that you are only as secure in TV news as your last ratings book, perhaps the best thing about where Baier finds himself today are his ratings. His "Special Report" is the fourth-highest-rated show in cable TV news, behind only those of Fox colleagues Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. And those three host highly opinionated programs as opposed to Baier's nightly newscast.

As for his hour of news from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. weeknights, Baier almost doubles the combined audience of his competitors on CNN and MSNBC.

So far this year, "Special Report" has an average nightly audience of 2,107,000 in viewers — compared with 604,000 for "The Ed Show" on MSNBC and 545,000 for Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" on CNN.

"I am proud of the way the ratings have grown," Baier says. "The sense I always had of taking over for Brit in January of 2009 is that they were big shoes to fill. Here was this guy who built this foundation for 10 years for this political news show that was No. 1, and I was taking it over. And what has transpired the last year and nine months is a matter of building on that foundation."

Michael Clemente, senior vice president at Fox News, says the foundation laid down by Hume has played a crucial role in Baier's success.

"Brit Hume had the legacy with the audience — a legacy that went back to his days with ABC News," Clemente says. "So why has it worked with Bret? First of all, the transition was handled well; Bret filled in quite a bit as Brit was winding down. But people make a judgment pretty quickly, and I think they judged Bret as being an honest, fair and smart reporter. And it wasn't like pulling some guy out of thin air who had just been a news reader on some local station."

Baier acknowledges that the tumultuous times in which the nation now finds itself also might have something to do with the size of his audience these days.

"There are huge issues that people are really concerned about," he says. "I think more people are tuning in in general because of what's coming out of Washington. I tell people here it's like drinking from a fire hose. Everyday is some huge event that affects peoples' lives all over the country. People turn to us on the news side for a straight report — and they feel like they can get it down the middle."

Claims of being "down the middle" by anyone at Fox are sure to be challenged. Smith and Baier are the two anchors with the best chance of making the claim, but some critics would contend that no one is down the middle at Fox News, given a history that includes its parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., donating $1 million to the Republican Party this year.

Of all the major media outlets in the country, few come under as much fire as Fox. Last October, the White House mounted a fierce campaign to try and discredit Fox, contending it was not a "real news organization." Baier himself became a target when he interviewed Obama on the eve of a contentious health care vote. Some critics claimed he was too aggressive.

"Look, it was the only interview he was doing," Baier says of his sitdown with Obama. "And I did get a sense at one point that he was saying the same things he had said earlier in the week on the stump — essentially stumping for the health care package. He was kind of holding the ball. And I had come to a point in that interview where I was either going to continue to press for answers or roll over and let the limited time, which had already been cut down, expire. I tried to do it in as respectful a way as I could."

As for the White House war, Baier says he is proud of the journalistic work Fox did during that period last fall.

"The untold story in the White House battle with Fox is that throughout even the darkest days in what they were saying about our news division, we were still effectively covering the White House," the DePauw University graduate says. "We were getting questions answered both publicly and privately, and we were getting e-mails answered. We were still operating under 'What do you guys say about this,' and 'What is your side of the story.' So even though we might have been a strange PR talking point for some folks over there, we were always still functioning in covering the place for our viewers."

Baier says he and his colleagues at Fox News are not afraid of a fight. It's practically part of the socialization process at the channel that has come to overwhelmingly dominate in ratings across the board for cable TV news.

"The thing about Fox is that we've always had this kind of scrappy attitude that we still want to fight and we still want to scrap for everything we can get, even though we've been No. 1 for a long time," he says.

"You know the Fox Atlanta bureau that I joined in 1998 — that started in my apartment in Atlanta with a fax machine and a cell phone. That was the bureau. And I still have that sense of us being that startup that is still trying to make it all come together. And I have to say, I really like that."

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the school from which Baier graduated. He is a DePauw University graduate. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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