It wouldn't be much of a stretch to describe Bret Baier's rise at Fox News as meteoric. In just about 10 years, the Atlanta native went from founding the network's Atlanta bureau (which consisted of a cellphone and fax machine in his apartment) to lead news anchor, drawing 2 million viewers each night. What many of those viewers may not know is that Baier credits part of that rapid rise to his two-year gig in Raleigh at WRAL in the 1990s.
Baier, anchor of the one-hour "Special Report with Bret Baier" (6 p.m. Monday-Friday), was hired away from WRAL in 1998 by Fox News to start the Atlanta bureau, then moved to Washington in 2001 as the network's Pentagon correspondent. He became the White House correspondent in 2006 and replaced Brit Hume as the Fox News nightly anchor in January 2009.
Baier will moderate the South Carolina GOP debate in Myrtle Beach tonight (9 p.m. on Fox News Channel).
We spoke to Baier by phone Friday and asked him about his time at WRAL, his family in D.C. and how he plans to handle the big South Carolina debate. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Tell us about your time at WRAL.
A: My first day I covered a tornado in Zebulon. That was my very first day. And they thought another tornado was coming to this little trailer park near Zebulon and so my staff and I were running with people to go seek shelter, and it turned out that it was a big story. There was a lot of damage, and the other tornado never came, but you can imagine the video. The whole thing was pretty interesting, so I ended up doing live shots for CBS affiliates around the country the next morning. That was Day 1. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but it just kicked off from there.
Q: What is the most important thing you learned as a local reporter that has helped you move to national reporting?
A: I guess, keep digging. Don't just coast. Keep on asking questions and getting out there. I went from general assignment to covering a lot of state politics. I actually followed the job of Jim Axelrod, a good friend of mine, who later, we worked together as White House Correspondents when he was doing that for CBS. So covering the state capital in Raleigh was also a great eye-opening thing for a reporter, and the different characters in state government enabled me to fine-tune the ability to talk to politicians and try to start to see through some of the stuff.
Q: You have the big debate coming up on Monday. South Carolina is seen by some in the Republican party as the last chance to slow Mitt Romney down. How do you keep the debate from being just the trashing of Romney by the other challengers?
A: Well, I think there are a number of questions that lend themselves to getting to substance and what each of these candidates is saying on the campaign trail. I think they've been talking past each other, when you're standing next to another candidate on the stage, it's a different environment. We hope to be able to dig in, get to some of the substance voters say they want to hear more about, and also enable them to answer for some of the things they've been saying not only on the trail, but in their ads in South Carolina.
Q: South Carolina is a more socially conservative state than Iowa and New Hampshire and the economy there is in worse shape. Do you shape your questions to reflect the concerns of South Carolina voters?
A: Yeah, definitely. The fact that unemployment in South Carolina is 9.9 percent, you look at New Hampshire and Iowa and I think it's roughly 5 percent, maybe 5 and a half in those two states. It's a different environment. It's well above the national average and there are a lot of people hurting in South Carolina. That will be a focus and kind of set the backdrop for a series of questions. We don't want to give away too much here in this interview, but there will definitely be a lot of economic focus. There will also be some focus on race questions. [It will be] Martin Luther King day and Juan Williams is on our panel, and we've been working out some questions about race and specifically African-American issues as it relates to the economy.
Q: Who else is on the panel besides you and Juan Williams?
A: We teamed up with the Wall Street Journal, so Jerry Seib and Kelly Evans. So we will all be asking questions.
Q: But you're leading things?
A: Yes, I'm sort of the traffic cop and questioner, and they will all be questioners as well.
Q: How do you prepare for a debate? This is not your first debate, is it?
A: It's my fifth debate. Actually sixth, but fifth national debate. It gets easier. You sort of get to get your head around what it takes. A lot of it is trying to make sure that we're fair on time and on the number of questions. And that's a fluid situation. And while you're in the debate, someone is in my ear kind of keeping track of all of that. We've done a pretty good job of that in the debates so far. The biggest challenge is to be able to listen to answers and to follow up when needed. If a candidate tries to dodge the original question. I think people expect that and it takes a lot of listening and paying attention, and fortunately I do this every day on my show, I'm kind of immersed in the back-and-forth of what is being said on the campaign trail.
Q: Fox is well known for the Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity shows. Do you ever think about getting into the opinion stuff more or do you want to stay in news?
A: No, I'm happy in news. It's a great thing to be able to be a news man at a station that has a great news product as well as a great opinion product, and I like that distinction. We have a panel segment where columnists and journalists, they analyze the day's events in Washington and along the campaign and around the world, but my show is a news program and we're proud of that. In fact, it's the number one news show on cable. By far.
Q: Your son Paul had some health problems early on. Is he doing okay now?
A: He is doing fine. We have another open heart surgery probably coming up in March, sometime after Super Tuesday. We hope that's how the schedule will go. And he's doing great. This will be the third open heart surgery, but once we get past this hurdle it looks like, God willing, everything will be on track.
Q: How old is he now?
A: He's four and a half. He's had three open heart surgeries and five angioplasties. It'll be three open heart surgeries in March. Yeah, he's a little trouper. He was born with five congenital heart defects and a very complicated heart that had to get reworked by a surgeon, so it does put things in perspective. And my wife is a rock.
Staff writer Rob Christensen contributed to this report.