Three of the top five choices in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's recent straw poll on favourite 2012 presidential candidates had more than one thing in common - they're all on the Fox News Channel payroll.
Mike Huckabee hosts his own weekend show at Fox, Newt Gingrich gets frequent air time as an analyst and Sarah Palin is a celebrated recent hire. Mitt Romney, who won the informal sample, does not work for Fox.
A Fox job certainly isn't a requirement for a Republican would-be president. Yet its stature as a town square for opponents of the Obama administration places Fox in what may be a unique position of influence for a television network.
“Fox has almost replaced the Heritage Foundation and AEI (American Enterprise Institute) as the White House in waiting for the Republican Party,” said Eric Burns, president of Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog.
Political experts say the Fox exposure carries some distinct advantages - and some dangers, too.
Fox has clearly sharpened its tone since the last election cycle, due in part to the arrival of Glenn Beck and making Sean Hannity a solo act. The foil of MSNBC as a liberal alternative and failures of CNN's impartial approach gave Fox an incentive to ramp things up, and its executives have been rewarded with soaring ratings and profits. (Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti did not return calls for comment.)
For politicians with future ambitions, a regular TV gig can keep visibility high. Pat Buchanan said his perch on CNN's “Crossfire” was indispensable in helping him create a national following for White House runs in 1992 and 1996.
“Undeniably, a TV personality on Fox News would benefit immensely from his name recognition, ability to articulate issues and the following Fox has, far larger now even than what we had when CNN was the only game in town and 'Crossfire' the only conservative-liberal show,” he said.
Political hopefuls need to be seen as more than just TV stars to translate that following, said Buchanan, who worked in the Reagan and Nixon administrations.
The first three months of the year was Fox's best ever in the ratings, the Nielsen Co. said, with the dominant news network's audience often beating larger competitors MSNBC, CNN and HLN combined.
No Democratic contenders can boast the exposure of the Fox trio, in part because President Obama is expected to run for re-election. On a smaller scale, MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews mulled running for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania while former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr., a commentator for the network, considered a Senate bill from New York.
Romney may become a test case for whether the lack of a Fox affiliation is a handicap. Erik Fehrnstrom, a Romney representative, declined to address the issue.
Jesse Benton, political director for Ron Paul, a Texas congressman who finished second in the straw poll, said working for Fox has an advantage, but the network and others still give Paul plenty of attention. “This isn't anything that we would gripe about,” Benton said.
All three politicians offer Fox individual strengths as TV performers. Gingrich provides tough commentary on the subjects that interest him, much as recent hire Karl Rove. Huckabee's soft-spoken, “aw-shucks” demeanour plays as well on television as it did on the campaign trail. Palin's a TV star, and it's hard to imagine her elsewhere.
A job at Fox is likely to be most important to Palin, said Terry Holt, a Washington-based political consultant. “If she doesn't have access to this audience and these people, she has fewer options,” he said.
Although on balance the TV jobs will help the politicians, they don't come without risk, said Thomas Patterson, a political science professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“The risk is that you're being taped all the time and you've got to be careful,” he said. If any of the commentators becomes the GOP standard-bearer, the opposition will be able to dissect mountains of recordings.
Because their audience is dominated by allies (a recent CBS/New York Times poll found that nearly two-thirds of Tea Party supporters said Fox was the network they trusted most to get their news), they'll be tempted to be strident.
“There's pressure on them to push the envelope a little bit,” Patterson said. “They're not expected to be on (Fox) and be bland.”
And, the same comments that can make the Fox audience cheer can also be held up for ridicule by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” He's been doing it with such sharpness and frequency that it's almost as if he has a shadow news network.
Fox has a responsibility to tell viewers when its on-air people are involved in politics through fundraising or other activities, Burns of Media Matters said.
Hannity earned a rebuke from his bosses last month when they learned that Tea Party officials were selling tickets to a Cincinnati event where Hannity was to record his show. Network executives forced him to return to New York. Fox executives had to tell Huckabee not to promote his website during his show because it linked to his political action committee, the Washington Post reported.