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Friday December 28, 2012

NEW YORK -- To his boss, Chris Matthews has become a statesman. His critics probably have other words.

The veteran MSNBC host raised his profile as much as any member of the television commentariat during the presidential campaign. His 5 p.m. "Hardball" show has seen viewership jump by 24 percent this year from 2011, 17 percent for the rerun two hours later.

Matthews symbolized MSNBC’s growing comfort in being a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel. He engaged in an uncomfortable on-air confrontation with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, seemed nearly apoplectic when President Barack Obama flubbed his first debate and had to apologize for appearing grateful that Hurricane Sandy might have helped Obama’s re-election effort.

With Keith Olbermann out of sight, Matthews essentially replaced him as the commentator that most annoyed conservative viewers.

"During the run-up to the Iraq War, he just became really, really partisan and became even more so when MSNBC decided to become the anti-Fox," said Geoff Dickens, who used to watch Matthews as a fan and now monitors him regularly as part of his job with the conservative Media Research Center.

Matthews is not afraid to say what he thinks. He’s a former newspaper columnist and one-time aide to a 1980s era Democrat, House Speaker Tip O’Neill. He seriously considered running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania a few years back, where he probably would have been asked repeatedly to explain why he voted for George W.


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Bush in 2000.

Iraq turned Matthews against Bush. He said war and peace, and civil rights, are the issues that drive him most and explain his enthusiasm for Obama.

Matthews’ flirtation with running for the Senate ended in part because the need to adhere to party orthodoxy wouldn’t mix with a man comfortable with voicing a dozen opinions per minute.

"I never want to do what everybody else is doing," he said. "I don’t want to be part of the chorus."

Like most in his trade, Matthews seems a little lost with the end of a long campaign. He’s done a few speculative 2016 stories, not recognizing the subject is enough to send most people screaming from the room.

"He is sort of the model figure for who we are," said MSNBC president Phil Griffin. "He doesn’t stick out loving politics and being passionate about politics. It comes across in everything we do Š And that’s Chris."

-- The Associated Press