Two years from now may seem like a long way off as far as the political calender is concerned, but rumors have been swirling in recent months that TV pundit and onetime congressional candidate Chris Matthews might leave broadcasting and dive back into Pennsylvania politics — this time, making a run for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Matthews, a Philadelphia native known to millions as the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC and "The Chris Matthews Show" on NBC, has been repeatedly mentioned as a possible opponent for U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is hoping to serve for a sixth term.
Matthews, 62, helped fuel speculation by expressing interest in the seat in both an April interview with The New York Times Magazine, as well as during an appearance on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" that same month.
Yet on other on-air occasions, he's insisted that he's a journalist, and has no interest in getting back in the partisan fray.
According to previously published reports, Matthews' contract at MSNBC
expires next year, and the cable network's executives are promoting younger faces, such as Keith Olbermann and David Gregory, instead of Matthews, whose on-air style has often been described as bombastic. Neither Matthews nor an MSNBC spokesperson could be reached for comment.
Matthews, who grew up in the Somerton section of the city and attended Catholic schools, made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Democrat in 1974 before landing a job as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. He later served as an aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neil — the late Massachusetts congressman who served as House Speaker from 1977-1987 — before switching to first print and then broadcast journalism.
His older brother, Jim Matthews, an occasional "Hardball" guest, is the Republican chairman of Montgomery County's Board of Commissioners. He, too, could not be reached for comment.
"As much as I think that he would make an intriguing candidate, it would also be challenging," said Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "It's a whole different world when you are the one being asked the questions."
Borick said that Matthews is a genuine celebrity, who at the same time would be able to project an "everyman" persona that appeals to blue-collar voters, in a vein similar to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Matthews has garnered a fair share of controversy in recent months; many supporters of Hillary Clinton accused him of openly favoring Barack Obama, and of repeatedly making remarks that many critics have contended bordered on sexism.
"I have seen him be very harsh on women. It could definitely be a factor," said Betsy Sheerr, a former Clinton supporter and major backer of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
Whether or not he truly plans to run, Matthews is increasing his viability locally. He's the expected keynote speaker at an October fundraising gala for the World Affairs Council of Phila-delphia, which recently elected him to its board of directors.
Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political consultant, said that Matthews would make for a skilled debater, but doesn't give him much of a chance of unseating Specter.
"It's hard to come back to a place where you haven't lived for many years to run. And Specter, in a general election, is as close to automatic as it gets," he said.
Yet Specter could face a serious challenge from within his own party. In 2004, the senator barely squeaked out a win in a primary against then-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, who hasn't said whether or not he'd seek the office again.
Toomey may also be mulling a run for Pennsylvania governor.
And then there's the sensitive issue of Specter's health. In 2005, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. He appeared to be in the clear, but in April, he was diagnosed with a recurrence, and last week completed chemotherapy. Nevertheless, he's insisted that he'll be on the ballot in 2010.
About the Middle East
Specter is considered a solidly pro-Israel lawmaker, though he has ruffled some feathers over the years by his frequent visits to Syria and his attempts to broker a land-for-peace deal that would involve Israel relinquishing the Golan Heights.
Matthews — not one to keep his opinions to himself — has made numerous remarks related to Israel and the Middle East in his 11 years on the air.
On a recent episode of "Hardball," he said: "We all know if there is something like a big world cataclysm in our lifetime … we know it's going to have something to do with the Arabs and Israel."
Steven Stotsky, a senior research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, took issue with the idea of placing so much global importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The intensity of violence and general conflict in Iraq far exceeds the violence between Israel and the Palestinians," Stotsky wrote in an e-mail.
In a broader sense, Stotsky said that Matthews has a mixed on-air record on Israel, sometimes challenging detractors of the Jewish state, sometimes not.
He wrote that "we have some concern with his frequent reliance on provocative guests, like Pat Buchanan, Peter Berg, Jimmy Carter and others, who present an unbalanced or uninformed perspective on the conflict in the Middle East."