Former Atlantan Bret Baier a fixture at Fox News

While the opinion makers at Fox News such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity get the headlines, former Atlantan Bret Baier brings a humble, old-school presence to the network.

And Fox News loyalists quickly found the news anchor likable and watchable. He is drawing an average of two million viewers a night this year, up nearly 40 percent from the first six months of 2008 when Brit Hume was at the helm.

“I did interviews before [Barack] Obama came into office and they believed the new presidency would be the death knell for Fox News,” Baier said. “But that hasn’t happened at all. I couldn’t be happier where we are.”

Baier, 39, benefited from the arrival of Glenn Beck, who started his 5 p.m. opinion show Inauguration week. And he likes being a contrast to Beck's emoting. "I respect the commentary folks," he said. "They're doing gangbusters. My job is different."

What do you think of Bret Baier so far as a 6 p.m. anchor on Fox News?

  • I like him. He's a solid, sober news anchor.
  • Sorry. He's no Brit Hume.
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He keeps his political opinions to himself — even to his wife Amy. "I try to pull out of him what he thinks of an issue or who he's going to vote for," she said. "I can't get anything out of him! He thinks he'll get more respect from his viewers if he's hardcore news."

Off-camera, his son Paul was born with multiple heart defects, requiring two major surgeries. The good news is Paul is now a healthy two years old and won't require another surgery for several years. He openly talked about this ordeal to the media.

“I’m not comfortable being the story,” he admitted. “But I hope this helps other people going through this.”

After his son's first surgery, "he was back to work after two weeks," Amy said. "He was immediately on a plane to Jackson Hole, Wy.. to interview the vice president [Dick Cheney]. In some ways, it was good for him to get back to work. I don't think he wanted to be out of the loop too long."

Baier moved to Dunwoody at age 10 and attended Marist where he was student council president and played golf.

He remembers growing his hair out long to cover his big ears. “I looked like Princess Leia,” he said. “I had this big puffy hair. But I got through this awkward stage.”

While in high school, he interned at WSB-TV. That’s when the sirens of broadcast television beckoned. When he attended DePauw University in Indiana, he became the first anchor at the new media center.

“It’s painful watching those tapes,” Baier said. “I just didn’t know where to look. The teleprompter wasn’t digital. Paper would fall off the machine while I was reading. Adlibbing was not an art form for me.”

His first post-college job was at a Savannah TV station out of Hilton Head, covering stories such as Loggerhead sea turtles in the road. Starting salary: $14,000. To make ends meet, he bartended at Applebee’s and delivered food on the side.

After stints in Rockford, Ill., and Raleigh, N.C., Baier got his chance in 1998 to go national when an upstart cable network called Fox News hired him to open a bureau in CNN’s backyard in Atlanta. At first, he worked out of his one-bedroom Buckhead apartment with a fax and a cell.

But he traveled — a lot. “There were times I wouldn’t be back in the apartment for three weeks at a time. Fortunately, I didn’t have any plants or pets.”

Although he was working out of Atlanta, “I never really thought about CNN,” he said. “To this day, I am mostly concerned about what we’re doing. But being in CNN’s shadow, I felt the groundswell of support as I traveled around the country.”

Hume, the veteran broadcaster who has worked with Fox News since 1997, was impressed with Baier from day one: “His packages were well-written, well-edited and well-structured. His political pieces were sophisticated and easy to follow.”

To John Stack, vice president of newsgathering, Baier "had a disarming charm. He always wants to improve his craft."

Baier made no secret he wanted to go to Washington. When Stack said he suggested Baier do a stint overseas first before going to D.C., “he respectfully disagreed.”

On 9/11, Baier and a producer immediately left Atlanta and drove to Washington, D.C. They drove 600 miles in nine hours, stopping only for gas. “The Pentagon was still burning when we got there,” he said. For nearly two weeks, he did live feeds for local Fox affiliates.

Fox brass liked what they saw. They gave him the Pentagon corresondent’s job.

He never made it back to Atlanta. “I was overseas and I had to call a buddy of mine to pack me up and send all my stuff to D.C.,” he said.

Over the next five years, he traveled to Iraq 13 times and Afghanistan 12 times. “I spent time with Special Forces at the Pakistani-Afghan border. I did a stint with troops in Baghdad patroling certain areas. I’ve run for cover from incoming missiles and mortars. But I never felt personally threatened.”

In 2006, Fox gave him the plum White House correspondence job. Baier “got veteran status very quickly,” Stack said. “He was persistent but a gentleman during the press conferences. That charm won people over.”

Last year, he became a frontrunner to replace Hume at the 6 p.m. evening anchor slot. After watching him do fill-in work on Fridays, the bosses gave him Hume’s chair in late December.

Michael Castengera, a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia and media consultant for a half-dozen local TV stations, isn't quite sold on Baier yet: "He has an odd voice to me. He's still getting his sea legs. It's going to be critical for him to create a comfort level."

Based on Fox honchos’ confidence in him and the ratings so far, Baier will have plenty of time to build credibility and even add a gray hair or wrinkle or two to his baby face.

“It’s a job of a lifetime for a guy like me who loves politics and being in the middle of things,” he said. “I’d be happy to retire at this job.”

If you’ve never seen him before, here’s a sampling of his work from May 5, 2009:

On a more frivolous level, Baier realizes that viewers care about his looks as well as his ability to convey the news.

“My first couple of days, I got 20 emails saying my pants were too wrinkled. Now I have a routine where I make sure my pants are always pressed right before I do the standup.”

And fans track his anchor-friendly head of hair, too. “When people say I look like [disgraced former Illinois Rod] Blagojevich (left),” he said, “then I know it’s time for a haircut.”