New York — IT was Tuesday morning on "The View" and Elisabeth Hasselbeck was outnumbered, again.
That's not unusual on ABC's tumultuous daytime coffee klatch, which has emerged as a pop culture staple this season with its freewheeling showdowns on subjects as varied as premarital chastity and prewar intelligence failures.
The topic this time: Don Imus and the slur he used to describe the Rutgers University women's basketball team. The ladies agreed it was offensive but unexpectedly didn't think he should necessarily be penalized -- all except Hasselbeck, that is.
"Along with freedom of speech, there's discretion and responsibility, and I feel like we toss those two things out," she said vehemently, crossing her arms and pressing them down on the glass-topped table.
That provoked co-host Joy Behar. "You have to be careful what you say ... " she started.
" ... I am careful what I say ... " Hasselbeck retorted.
"No, about what you say about firing people for speech," Behar continued, her voice rising. "You are in that position. It could happen to you."
"You know, if I said what he said, I should be fired," Hasselbeck shot back.
Rosie O'Donnell jumped in. "What's the next step, Elisabeth?" she asked, turning to face the younger woman. "Your job is going to be taken away if you think or say something that America doesn't like?"
Even Barbara Walters, in her own genteel way, piled on: "What we are saying is, the man said he has learned. He's done everything he possibly can, and to take him off the air?"
Time for a commercial break. O'Donnell walked over to the studio audience to take questions as Behar and Walters slipped backstage.
Hasselbeck was left sitting at the table, alone.
It's a position the 29-year-old often finds herself in nowadays. Amid the cacophony of controversies that have drawn attention to "The View" this season -- Donald Trump's feud with O'Donnell (and then Walters) over his handling of the Miss USA scandal, Danny DeVito's limoncello-fueled intoxication -- Hasselbeck has improbably emerged as the show's ballast.
The youngest and most conservative member of the four-person panel, she persistently defends the Bush administration, positioning herself as punching bag, foil and fire-starter for her co-hosts, who frequently jostle for the opportunity to challenge her statements.
Hasselbeck has become more outspoken -- and essential -- in that role since the arrival this season of O'Donnell, the show's moderator, who seems exasperated and disgusted by her pro-Bush views. In February, O'Donnell dismissed her as "very young" and "very wrong" as they debated the government's electronic eavesdropping measures. A few weeks later, during an impassioned discussion about torture, the older woman accused her of "blather" and snapped: "Elisabeth, you have to stop."
All this political passion has given "The View" a renewed sense of relevance in its 10th year. Originally conceived by Walters as a forum for women of various backgrounds to dish about matters great and small, the program seemed poised to disintegrate into back-biting last season when Star Jones Reynolds exited amid a storm of counter-accusations. But this season's table talk -- especially the ripostes between O'Donnell and her petite bete noire -- has elevated the show's profile beyond its midmorning audience. Partisan blogs, cable shows and entertainment magazines alike now raptly follow developments on the water cooler mainstay.
"ABC has to be thrilled," said Bill Carroll, director of programming for Katz Television Group, who tunes in at work so he won't miss any sparks. "No one has talked about daytime television, except the failures, for years."
The possible departure of O'Donnell, who is weighing whether to extend her contract past June, has only amplified the program's dramatic tension.
Sometimes the debate at the table gets so heated that Hasselbeck's brother will call after the show to make sure she's OK. Walters said recently that when she watches on her days off, "my heart is in my mouth."
But the young co-host insists she couldn't be happier with the program's dynamic and her key role in it. "I actually liked today," Hasselbeck said contentedly, settling on a chair in her pistachio-green dressing room after the taping, a throw pulled over her bare arms. "I like it fiery.
"I am not bullied," she added firmly. "I can handle my own."
What really bothers her is when people assume the one-time "Survivor" contestant and wife of New York Giants quarterback Tim Hasselbeck is a lightweight.
"Maybe because Tim plays football, they think I'm some sort of cheerleader," she said. "I'm not. I'm throwing the ball."
On ever-firmer ground
IT'S a stance she's grown more comfortable asserting in the 3 1/2 years since she succeeded then-fellow-twentysomething Lisa Ling at the "The View" table.