When the arch-conservative Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe made his way to Rachel Maddow's eponymous 9:00 p.m. MSNBC show on March 15, viewers probably didn't expect a lovefest.
Inhofe, however, had unusually kind words for the liberal host.
"You won't believe this but I'm happy to be here with you," he told Maddow. "I really love people who are liberal that are honest about it. The ones I don't like are the hypocrites."
It isn't just Inhofe. No lesser figure than Fox News President Roger Ailes blurbed her recent bestseller, Drift, as "a book worth reading." The conservative movement, in fact, is in the throes of an unlikely fascination with the liberal, intellectual television host, an out lesbian, former Rhodes Scholar, and longtime resident of Northampton, Mass. The appeal has two major strains, conservatives say: They respect her intellect; and they believe that all Democrats are as far left as she is, but that most hide it better.
"Maddow is the Rush Limbaugh of the left, a joyous warrior for her cause," the Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos said in an email, adding that she shares Limbaugh's "joie de guerre."
"She is somewhat more limited than Rush since she is wrong about almost everything, but she's a happy warrior nevertheless," he said. "Maddow is quite different than the joyless Lawrence O'Donnell, whose demeanor suggests he hasn't had a bowel movement in months."
A survey of a spectrum of conservative and Republican figures finds the movement's signature on the subject.
"I disagree with her ideologically but I am extremely impressed with her intellect and her ability to position the issues," said Mallory Factor, the co-founder of New York City's conservative Monday Meeting. "Too many left ideologues just rant and rave with no substance."
"It's impossible not to be wowed by Rachel's intellectual bona fides - and although she's obviously blessed in the intelligence category, she must be one of the hardest working hosts in news because she knows the issues inside and out," said Elise Jordan, a former speechwriter for Condi Rice and frequent contributor on the cable news circuit. "Even though I may disagree with her politically, I really respect how she's fearless in putting herself out there. She's engages you on a human to human level — her criteria is intellectual honesty, not partisan politics."
"She is very smart," said John McCain's 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. "Very good on TV and a very nice person. He arguments are well conceived — intellectually honest and delivered without malice and venom."
Maddow's allies at the liberal network, meanwhile, take the conservative obsession in amused stride.
"She *is* a worthy foe!" host Chris Hayes said in an email. "I think a lot of conservatives watch her because she's the most charismatic, persuasive, rigorous liberal in America."