- Associated Press - Thursday, November 18, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - A liberal advocacy group estimates that five potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates who work for Fox News Channel were on the air nearly 66 hours in the first 10 months of the year.

The accounting by Media Matters for America points to the hugely influential _ and profitable _ position the network is creating as the go-to media outlet for Americans curious to see which Republican will emerge as President Barack Obama’s opponent in his expected re-election run.

Media Matters looked at the airtime of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and John Bolton, all paid contributors who frequently give commentary on the network. The fifth was Mike Huckabee, who as host of his own weekend show logs the most time on Fox.

Using current advertising rates, Media Matters calculated that the five had received at least $40 million of free airtime.

"Essentially, there is a Fox News primary going on," said Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters vice president.

Many Republican viewers don’t question that, reasoning that other networks give plenty of airtime to Obama and not simply because he is president, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center. Obama is being interviewed by Barbara Walters for a post-Thanksgiving special on ABC, he gave an interview to CBS’ "60 Minutes" a few weeks back and he appeared on ABC’s "The View" during midterm campaigning.

For Fox, locking up these prominent Republicans for roles on the network is a good way to appeal to a viewing audience dominated by conservatives, Graham said. The payoff comes on nights like the midterm elections, a good-news night for Republicans where Fox outdrew every broadcast and cable network covering the races in prime time.

"They see it as trying to even out the bias," he said. "There is just a remarkable amount of promotion of Obama and it continues."

A Fox News spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There isn’t a comparable situation at the other networks, where no challenger to Obama has publicly emerged.

Fox’s stable of potential candidates raises questions for the network and political process moving forward. Pat Buchanan, who worked at CNN in the 1990s, took periodic breaks from "Crossfire" when he announced candidacies.

The questions are similar for Fox: Will these politicians leave Fox’s employ if they run for president? Will they delay announcing candidacies in order to get more time on the air? Will Fox feel comfortable keeping these politicians as employees if a candidacy is announced?

The exposure could be a real advantage for these politicians, and the lack of it a detriment for potential candidates such as Mitt Romney who are not in Fox’s employ. As it is, candidates will be going out of their way to appeal to Fox personalities like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, Rabin-Havt said.

"There never has been a network that has so dominated a political process," he said.

There’s also the possibility that GOP candidates in the upcoming political season may avoid other news organizations to conduct much of their campaigning before a Fox News audience, he said.

Huckabee appeared onscreen on Fox for more than 38 hours through Oct. 31, according to Media Matters. Palin and Gingrich each had nine hours, Santorum had five hours and Bolton, four.

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