Sean Hannity says his show had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton's sudden good fortune

When history chronicles the comeback of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, a case can be made that it started on Fox News Channel's "Hannity."

That was where Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), then the leading candidate for speaker of the House, claimed that the special House committee to investigate the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi drove down her poll numbers.

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The Sept. 29 remarks were seen as supporting Clinton's claims that the committee was politically motivated and appeared to galvanize a sagging campaign. She was declared the outright winner of the first Democratic primary debate.

When she testified for 11 hours before the Benghazi committee, her poised performance played like a marathon of "Madam Secretary." The icing on the cake was Vice President Joe Biden's decision not to run against her for the Democratic nomination.

"Hillary can be the next president," said Hannity, acknowledging the candidate's run of good fortune and positive press during a recent conversation on the set of his nightly prime-time program at Fox News headquarters. But the conservative commentator doesn't buy the notion that McCarthy's gaffe, or confession depending on your point of view, will go down as the turning point.

"The way I took it is that he misspoke," Hannity said. "It became a bigger deal than I thought it would. I thought somebody would pick up on it. My opinion was he's saying 'we weren't afraid to take on Hillary and tell the truth about her because four Americans died.' He could have said it 50 different ways. But he didn't say it that way. It was inarticulate."

Hannity recently spoke with McCarthy, whose chances at the speakership dissolved quickly after the appearance.

"He didn't blame me," Hannity said. "How could he? I didn't put words in his mouth."

Nor did "Hannity" viewers complain that the host didn't help McCarthy out. They were more interested in whether the congressman from Bakersfield would fight on the issues most important to the conservative movement, such as defunding Obamacare. "The consensus was he dodged too much," Hannity said, citing the feedback he received.

The 53-year-old native of Long Island, N.Y., downplays the amount of influence his show has in the American political process, noting that no one in the media has been harder on President Obama, who after all was elected twice.

But Republican presidential candidates know if they want to reach primary voters, especially the ones on his end of the political spectrum, they need to show up on his program. Through Oct. 22, Hannity had conducted 82 interviews with the contenders for the Republican nomination since March.

Competitors believe "Hannity" is the place where GOP candidates are talking to viewers who will actually go out and vote. (All of the Democratic candidates have been invited, but only one, Lincoln Chafee, now out of the race, has appeared.)

In October, an average of 1.5 million viewers tuned in each night to see Hannity warn how America is "going down the tubes" without ever relinquishing the genial manner he presents on his still youthful choirboy face. Nielsen says that audience figure is up 10% from a year ago and notes a 2% gain in the 25 to 54 age group advertisers seek from news programming.

Hannity — one of the few TV hosts who clearly self-identifies as a conservative — prefers a Republican in the Oval Office, although he admits there are some presidential contenders that he would not be comfortable with as the party standard-bearer. He would not name them specifically.

"I have a Top 5," he said, referring to the candidates he'd like to see represent the GOP.

When pressed, Hannity acknowledges that real estate mogul Donald Trump is one of those five. The two men have been friends for years, and although Hannity wears jeans behind the glass table where he does his show every night, he is often wearing a tie that bears the Donald J. Trump label.

"I get the whole collection," Hannity said. "He's been sending them to me for years. They are great ties and they look great on TV."

Hannity said the enthusiasm he has seen for appearances by Trump is reminiscent of the excitement Obama generated when he first ran in 2008, and he offers a reason for it. "He's connecting with people on a basic level," he said. "Government has failed. All talk, no action. The country is suffering needlessly and Americans are craving that we turn things around."

Hannity maintains that the Trump he knows is "deeper" than the bombastic character he plays on TV and the campaign stump. While you will always hear him talk of building the best buildings, golf courses and proposed border walls, seeing the candidate around his children provides a different picture.

"There [is] something amazing about all his kids," he said. "They are all hardworking. The youngest one [9-year-old Barron] comes up to me and says, 'Hi, Mr. Hannity, it's an honor to meet you.' He is that polite — it's not by accident."

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For the Record
Oct. 28, 1:36 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Barron Trump's first name as Baron and also said he is 10 years old. He is 9.
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Hannity's personal relationship with Trump appears to have played a role in smoothing over the candidate's at times rocky relationship with Fox News. Trump feuded with the channel over the tough questions from its rising star anchor, Megyn Kelly, at the first Republican primary debate Aug. 6.

It continued to flare up last month, when Trump announced he was boycotting the channel after an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" was canceled following a series of disparaging tweets about Kelly. Fox News announced the two sides were to have a meeting about coverage, but it never happened and Trump eventually came back on.

Hannity, who like his other colleagues defended Kelly, said he did speak to Trump about his issues with Fox News.

"That was a private conversation," he said. "I did provide counsel."

Hannity said he avoids reading blogs, social media or any other criticism of his TV program or nationally syndicated radio show, although he knows it's out there. "One of a number of things I've said to people in this building is go Google my name you'll feel a lot better," he said.

Even with that thick skin, Hannity said he still intends to make good on a vow to leave New York in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's remarks that extreme conservatives "have no place" in the state. It will happen, he said, once his son graduates high school.

"I don't want to live in New York," said Hannity, who has never been a part of the city's celebrity scene. "I want out of here as quick I can." But that doesn't mean he's leaving either of his bully pulpits anytime soon.

"My wife doesn't want me to retire because she knows I'll be running around in the car talking to myself doing monologues and being a crazy person," he said. "I live eat, breathe and sleep this, and I have my whole life, and I don't know why."

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

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