April 28, 2003 12:00 PM

Shepard Smith is giving another of his no-nonsense, opinionated commentaries, but there’s not a camera to be seen. “We’re winning the war,” the Fox News Channel anchor tells the man preparing his salad at a midtown Manhattan cafe. “But what about all those people dying?” the man asks. Smith’s quick retort: “Sadly, people die in war, but we’re winning.”

So is Smith, whose ratings have tripled in the past two months, as viewers turn to him for the latest war updates (and away from once-might CNN, which now averages 3.4 million viewers per night, compared to Fox News Channel’s 4.52 million). His nightly newscast, The Fox Report with Shepard Smith, was the most watched cable program during the first week of April, drawing 6.43 million viewers. With additional anchoring duties on the afternoon show Studio B and FOX’s weekly newsmagazine The Pulse and a late-night slot on Fox News Live, Smith, 39, “has become the face of Fox News Channel,” says Jay Wallace, senior producer for The Fox Report and Studio B. “When everything’s hitting the fan, that’s when he kicks into high gear.”

Smith’s supremely confident air and folksy delivery hasn’t impressed some of his media colleagues—Dallas Morning News critic Ed Bark recently called him “gratingly cocksure” and “off-putting.” But viewers eat it up: In an April TV Guide poll, Smith tied Peter Jennings and Dan Rather for second place as America’s most trusted anchor (Tom Brokaw topped the list). “He’s broken that wall of the classic pressed-shirt anchor,” says Wallace. “When he screws up, he’ll admit it right there.”

Take, for instance, his J.Lo slipup of last November. In a rush to wrap up his Fox Report broadcast one night, Smith stumbled while reading a Jennifer Lopez news item with the phrase “curb job” on the TelePrompTer and made a sexual reference. “The blood rushed to my toes,” he recalls. He apologized on-air, but a recording of the gaffe quickly spread via the Internet. “Everybody was laughing about it except me,” says Smith. “I eventually did too.”

Smith has never laughed about his arrest in November 2000, when he was charged with felony aggravated battery in Tallahassee, Fla., while covering the presidential election. A freelance reporter alleged that Smith struck her with his car during an argument over a parking space (Smith says she jumped onto his hood). The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and dropped after the woman agreed to an undisclosed settlement. “I regret that we had an argument,” he says now. “I’m just glad it’s over.”

That encounter aside, Smith has long demonstrated impressive people skills. Born David Shepard Smith Jr. in tiny Holly Springs, Miss, (dad Shepard Sr., 74, is a retired cotton merchant; mom Dora Ellen, 73, a retired bookkeeper), he began working as weekend soda jerk at a local drugstore when he was 13. “Talking and mixing with people came naturally to him,” says his dad. Smith was mesmerized by the live TV coverage of Elvis Presley’s funeral in 1977. “I liked the immediacy of it all,” he says.

In 1987, two credits shy of graduating from the University of Mississippi with a journalism degree, Smith dropped out to marry classmate Virginia Donald and take a Panama City, Fla., reporting job. A year later he moved to a Fort Myers station that had just purchased its first satellite truck. “It meant we could get out and cover hurricanes,” says Smith. “I knew right then, I’ll do this forever.”

By 1993 he had landed in Miami, just after his marriage had fallen apart. Smith next worked at A Current Affair and later covered the O.J. Simpson trial for FOX before moving to New York City in 1996 to report for the new Fox News Channel. In 1999 he reluctantly agreed to some overnight anchor work to beef up his highlight reel. To his surprise, he liked it. “You’re reporting from the anchor desk,” he says. “I’d never thought of it that way.”

In the few hours each day that he’s not appearing on Fox News, Smith plays pool in his new two-bedroom Chinatown apartment. He dates, “but not lately,” won’t discuss his politics (“Not even my parents know how I vote”) and is already looking forward to a postwar vacation. “I want to go to a small island where they have drinks with umbrellas in them,” he says. “I just hope it’s soon.”

Jason Lynch

Liza Hamm in New York City

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