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Conservatives left without a voice on 'The View'

Elisabeth Hasselbeck (in pink, with, from left, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, and Barbara Walters) 'speaks to a huge constituency of women where it's fair to say the Republican Party needs some help,' says GOP consultant Frank Donatelli. Elisabeth Hasselbeck (in pink, with, from left, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, and Barbara Walters) "speaks to a huge constituency of women where it's fair to say the Republican Party needs some help," says GOP consultant Frank Donatelli. (Steve Fenn/AP)

When Elisabeth Hasselbeck bade farewell to her cohosts on "The View" Tuesday, it was all hugs, well-wishes, and baby-product endorsements. But as Hasselbeck begins her 2 1/2-month maternity leave, the political landscape is shifting, as well. America's most dangerous conservative - or so some liberals see it - is leaving TV for a while.

Hasselbeck, the apple-cheeked blonde with the football-player husband, consistently draws a brand of hatred from the left that Hillary Clinton generates from the right; "screechmonger" is one of the more printable slurs hurled at her from the blogosphere. Barry Manilow has called her "offensive." Alicia Silverstone once refused to touch her. And that an America's sweetheart-type would generate such vitriol says a lot about the state of debate in a polarized country.

Hasselbeck is a far cry from the most prominent conservative women on the cable talk-show circuit, the ones who deal in slick sarcasm, publish books that vilify liberals ("Godless" and "Slander" both by Ann Coulter, "Unhinged" by Michelle Malkin) and take obvious pleasure in a claws-out fight. The youngest member of "The View" lineup is hardly a master debater; she's always outnumbered and usually outargued. But she has a prominent daily forum for her antiabortion, pro-war views - "The View" often reaches more than 3 million viewers each day.

And Hasselbeck represents "an audience that the left just can't crack: traditional, God-fearing red state women, well-intended, who have made up their minds and won't hear it. Won't hear otherwise," said Matthew Felling, editor of Public Eye, the media commentary site.

To her like-minded fans, Felling said, Hasselbeck's lack of slickness is a strength. "Regardless of how much effort or thought she puts into her views or stances, it comes across as just from the heart. Or from the gut. Which is one of the strengths of the conservative conversation."

Indeed, with her storybook personal history - she married her Boston College sweetheart, who happens to be an NFL quarterback - Hasselbeck represents a new image for conservative punditry, more Ann Romney than Ann Coulter. As Republicans struggle to connect with women and gird for a possible female Democratic nominee, Hasselbeck gives voice to a crucial set of voters, said longtime GOP consultant Frank Donatelli.

"She's got a platform that very few people have," said Donatelli, who is working for Senator John McCain. "She speaks to a huge constituency of women where it's fair to say the Republican Party needs some help."

Analysts tend to label them "security moms": married women with children who care about micro-issues of safety and household economics. Hasselbeck is much more ideological than most; her views seem driven in large part by the abortion debate. But her family-driven passions could prove crucial in swing states, Donatelli said: "Those kinds of issues that appeal to the middle segment of women and younger families generally will be very, very important."

It's unclear whether any campaigns have reached out to Hasselbeck, who will return to "The View" in January, just after the Republican Iowa caucuses. Through a spokesman for "The View," Hasselbeck declined an interview request. On Tuesday, she was scheduled to fly to Arizona, where her husband, Tim Hasselbeck, recently signed with the Arizona Cardinals.

But at a time when talk-show hosts are trying harder than ever to wield political influence - Oprah Winfrey has put her name and fund-raising clout behind Senator Barack Obama's Democratic presidential bid - it's easy to imagine that some campaigns would eye Hasselbeck as a prize.

Hasselbeck didn't start her career with politics in mind. The Rhode Island native first gained national fame as Elisabeth Filarski, a 23-year-old Newton resident who competed on the second installment of CBS's "Survivor." She parlayed a final-four finish into a job hosting the Style Network show "The Look for Less." In November 2003, she won a coveted slot as the designated "young person" on "The View's" all-female panel.

Hasselbeck quickly emerged as the show's resident conservative. She spoke out for President George W. Bush during the 2004 election campaign, had a prime-time speaking gig at that year's Republican National Convention, and attended a White House state dinner with Queen Elizabeth. When Rosie O'Donnell began a yearlong stint as the show's moderator last fall, her frequent spats with Hasselbeck - which at least once landed Hasselbeck in tears - made the YouTube rounds.

They also solidified Hasselbeck's image as a victim; her cohosts on "The View" tend to lecture her or treat her with gentle condescension. "Elisabeth, calm down, dear," Barbara Walters said one day last year, after Hasselbeck delivered a passionate rant against the morning-after pill. Earlier this week, when Hasselbeck criticized Republican pork barrel spending, cohost Joy Behar shouted, "Very good, Elisabeth," and Walters chimed in with, "Now that's a milestone!"

In part, those attitudes reflect the informal nature of the show, where hosts gab about their private lives and hew to the conceit that they're close friends. Walters tends to preside with a maternal air; on Tuesday, on the air, she said she was nervous about Hasselbeck flying, and urged her to "call me as soon as you land."

But the fact that Hasselbeck faces off daily against three or four dissenters - however congenial they might be when the topic shifts from politics - generates respect among like minds, said E.M. Zanotti, 25, who runs a conservative blog called "American Princess."

"I can't imagine what it might be like to get up every day and do that," Zanotti said by phone from Ann Arbor, Mich., last week, as she fretted over her own upcoming appearance on CNN. For aspiring conservative pundits, she said, Hasselbeck represents new opportunities for exposure.

"It helps to have someone out there like that," Zanotti said, so talk-show hosts and rival guests "aren't always assuming that they're going up against Ann Coulter, that they're going up against Michelle Malkin. There are women out there [with] a different personality."

Indeed, as some female pundits say ever-more-outrageous things to get attention - promoting her latest book, Coulter recently told a CNBC host that "we just want Jews to be perfected" - Hasselbeck has found a niche by being earnest, guileless, and credibly authentic.

"A lot of the daily outrages are synthetic and manufactured," Felling said. "And just like you can feel real cotton, you can also feel a blend of trumped-up outrage inside a media debate."

Audiences believe that Hasselbeck is real, said Bill Shine, senior vice president of programming for the Fox News Channel, where Hasselbeck has appeared on "Hannity & Colmes" and guest-hosted the "FOX & Friends" morning show.

"You don't see Elisabeth out there writing books and doing book tours," Shine said. "You kind of get the sense that after the show, Elisabeth's going home and she is changing a couple of diapers."

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