NEW YORK — Just a year ago, Fox News Channel was considered a pariah in many Democratic circles. But it appears that the cable news network is no longer in the doghouse.
Consider this week: On Sunday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a long-awaited appearance on "Fox News Sunday," a booking that host Chris Wallace had been seeking for more than two years. (The show airs on both the Fox broadcasting network and its sister cable channel.) On Wednesday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) granted her first interview to Bill O'Reilly, a commentator viewed with antipathy by much of the left, in no small part because of his denunciations of the Clintons in the 1990s. And this coming Sunday, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean plans to sit down with Wallace for the first time since November 2006.
Last year at this time, liberal activists pressured Democrats to stay off the news channel, which they termed a "Republican mouthpiece," successfully scuttling plans for two Fox-hosted debates. Obama and Clinton, wary of offending the party's base, largely steered clear of Fox News interviews.
These days, the candidates are not so standoffish.
"Fox has given Hillary Clinton better coverage than all the other cables," Clinton campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe said during a radio interview last week with Fox News' John Gibson.
In recent months, both Democratic contenders have stepped up their appearances on the channel. In the first four months of 2008, Clinton did 10 interviews on Fox News, compared with just three in 2007. Obama has done eight interviews this year after appearing only twice last year.
"Both senators are very smart people," said John Moody, the channel's executive vice president of news editorial. "They're locked in a very tight battle, and they're realizing that coming on Fox News is a way to get themselves exposed to the greatest number of people who watch cable news."
This political season, Fox News has not enjoyed the kind of huge audience gains that rivals CNN and MSNBC have. But it remains the top-ranked cable news network, drawing 1.78 million viewers in prime time so far this year, up 11% compared with the same period last year. (CNN has averaged 1.18 million, up 52%, while MSNBC has drawn 734,000, up 47%.)
"I never really took it very personally that they didn't want to come on here before," said Brit Hume, the network's Washington managing editor. "It was a political play. There was a stage in the primary season when Obama would have been delighted to say, 'See, I'm defying Fox News.' At this point, not so much."
The rapprochement between the Democrats and the cable network comes as the focus of the primary race is shifting from party loyalists to the kind of swing voters who share Fox News' populist sensibilities. The channel is an especially desirable forum on the eve of Tuesday's Democratic primary in Indiana, in which Republican and independent voters can also cast ballots.
"It's a good vehicle to reach a lot of the kind of voters that both Sens. Clinton and Obama want to talk to right now: It's got a solid, blue-collar, middle-class, middle-of-the-road audience," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is not working for either candidate. "This thing about it being the network of just conservative viewers is just not really true."
A survey of 10,000 people last year by consumer research firm Mediamark Research found that 39% of Fox News' viewers described themselves as being very or somewhat conservative, 47% as middle-of-the-road or undecided, and 14% as very or somewhat liberal. By comparison, CNN's audience is 33% conservative, 47% middle-of-the-road and 20% liberal.
"I was very frustrated when we were the target of this boycott, but I always felt that eventually they would come around, because they need to reach out to our audience," Wallace said. "It has nothing to do with Fox News. It has everything to do with the people who watch Fox News."
The thaw between the network and the Democrats demonstrates the enduring strength of the channel, which has emerged as a political lightning rod in the last decade.
Critics complain that it leans to the right and parrots talking points from the Bush administration. Democrats were especially outraged after "Fox & Friends" anchors last year discussed a now-debunked report in a conservative magazine claiming that Obama had studied at a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, as a child. (The anchors later clarified that Obama said it was false.)
Network executives say there's a difference between the channel's daytime news programs and outspoken nighttime commentators, who they say serve as a counterweight to a liberal media establishment.
Bloggers who mounted the anti-Fox News campaign last year hoping to marginalize the network were dismayed by the major interviews Obama and Clinton granted the channel this week. Websites such as OpenLeft and Daily Kos were bombarded with incredulous postings.