Sean Hannity is getting a bruising reminder that this year's presidential campaign defies traditional political rules.
The Fox News Channel and radio host had a nasty spat with Sen. Ted Cruz this past week, following criticism from both the left and right about his interviews with Donald Trump. Fox also aired the odd spectacle of Hannity sitting onstage with Trump as an audience booed lustily at the mention of Fox colleague Megyn Kelly's name.
In an election year when cable news networks are enjoying a bump in viewership, Hannity is a key man for Fox, and his audience is growing more quickly than Kelly's and Bill O'Reilly's. They precede Hannity in Fox's prime-time lineup.
Fox declined to make Hannity available for an interview for this story.
Hannity's relationship with Trump became an issue when the liberal website Thinkprogress.org published a story that wondered how Hannity had been able to interview Trump so much without making news, and quoted exchanges that depicted a friendly relationship.
Trump had been a guest on Hannity's Fox show 32 times before last week's town hall in Pittsburgh, according to the host's records.
Hannity has said on his radio show that he does not support one Republican over another.
The attack didn't seem to surprise Hannity, who noted the website's ties to Hillary Clinton supporters. The story, however, was picked up and amplified by the conservative, anti-Trump website Redstate.com.
During Hannity's recent Trump interview, he pressed for specifics on how the candidate would help people economically in that part of the country and how his Mideast policies would differ from President Barack Obama's.
About Trump's claims that some delegates were being snatched, Hannity said, "Clearly there are people who want to circumvent and disenfranchise the voters. What do you say to them?"
He asked him to detail Clinton's weaknesses, and there was an uncomfortable moment where he asked Trump to reveal what unflattering nickname he would try to stick on Clinton like he did with "Lyin' Ted" Cruz.
Trump wouldn't say, but promised Hannity he'd be the first to know.
By Hannity's count, Cruz had appeared on his television show 34 times since Cruz announced his candidacy. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, still in the race, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is not, had been on the show 20 times, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another dropout, making 19 appearances.
On his radio show, through last week, Cruz had logged more interview time than any other candidate — more than 188 minutes on the air. Trump's 112 minutes were third behind Rubio.
"I'm just going to remain neutral and give you access to the candidates, because no one else is doing it," Hannity said. "At the end of the day, if it's Cruz or Trump who is the nominee, I'm going to support them because it would be a disaster if Hillary Clinton becomes president."
When Cruz this past week seemingly made a reference to Hannity's critics in a radio interview, the host flashed annoyance.
After Cruz called a Hannity question about the fight for delegates part of a silly media obsession, Hannity pressed the point.
"The only people asking this are the hard-core Donald Trump supporters," Cruz said.
"You've got to stop," Hannity replied. "Every time I have you on the air and I ask you a legitimate question, you throw this in my face, and I'm getting sick of it. I've had you on the air more than any other candidate."
The unabashed conservative makes no secret of his views, and he appeals to a like-minded audience.
In last week's Trump interview, when Hannity asked about the candidate's private meeting at Trump Tower with Kelly on April 13, the pro-Trump crowd booed at the mention of her name. Kelly has come under constant criticism from Trump since she asked him a question he didn't like last summer.
Neither man spoke about the audience's reaction. Trump smiled. Hannity, who was largely off camera, appeared to make a "stop" motion with his arms.
It was an audible manifestation of a delicate problem for Fox.
Kelly, Fox's brightest new star, has come under relentless criticism from Trump, and many Hannity fans are siding with the GOP front-runner instead of the network long loved by Republican viewers.
Given that Trump seems to feel comfortable on Hannity's show, the veteran talk show host is an important asset for Fox in a combustible campaign.
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