Senator Matthews, D-MSNBC?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; 10:25 AM

It's a rough time for political junkies.

The presidential campaign is over, the big Cabinet jobs have been filled, even the Georgia Senate runoff has come and gone. About all we have to cling to is the Franken/Coleman recount in Minnesota, which is making Florida look highly efficient, and the race for RNC chairman, which frankly isn't doing it for me.

Even the Palin-in-2012 chatter now seems too distant to get the adrenaline going.

But what if we were to talk about one of the country's most hotly debated talk show hosts jumping into politics? Usually the traffic moves in the other direction. Joe Scarborough, Harold Ford, Donna Brazile, Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris, Karl Rove and Howard Wolfson have all jumped from politics to the cable circuit.

But the voluble host of "Hardball" may go the other way. Here's my report:

Chris Matthews has always admitted that his life dream was to be a senator. But now that the MSNBC host is actively exploring a run in Pennsylvania, he has created a thorny dilemma for his network.

By ratcheting up his efforts -- Matthews is considering buying a house in the state -- the onetime Democratic operative has created an awkward situation for MSNBC, where his $5 million-a-year contract expires in June. Although some analysts say his electronic trail of controversial sound bites could hamper a 2010 campaign, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday has Matthews trailing the Republican incumbent, Sen. Arlen Specter, by 46 percent to 43 percent.

Matthews, 62, declined to be interviewed. "We're not going to comment on a speculative story," says MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines.

But more than speculation is involved. Matthews met with state Democratic officials last week and has twice consulted former representative Joe Hoeffel, who lost to Specter in 2004. "I believe he would be a strong candidate," Hoeffel says. "He's clearly interested. I told him celebrity is really a two-edged sword. It gives him great entree, but it's hard for a national celebrity to come back to their home state. There might be some resentment."

Matthews, who has a daughter at the University of Pennsylvania, has been a Chevy Chase resident for two decades.

Although MSNBC executives take Matthews's soundings seriously, they have not ruled out the possibility that the "Hardball" host is trying to gain leverage in upcoming contract talks, which are expected to start soon. Matthews expects to be offered a deal with a significant pay cut. Politico reported yesterday that Matthews has asked some of his advisers whether he should leave MSNBC before his contract expires. Further exploratory efforts would put Matthews in the difficult position of, for instance, interviewing Republican senators while angling to join their ranks as a Democrat.

Television analyst Andrew Tyndall says there is no need for Matthews to step down now. "He's free to put out feelers and then decide not to do it," Tyndall says. "Because of his style of interviewing -- highly subjective, first-person, opinionated, always injecting his views -- I don't think it impacts his journalism."

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