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Matthews in 2010: Will He Play Hardball?

When ex-Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) ran into television host Chris Matthews recently, Matthews didn’t ask him to play “Hardball.”

Instead, Hoeffel said, Matthews brought up a possible bid for a Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2010.

“He was thinking about it enough to chat with me a little about it when we bumped into each other socially,” Hoeffel recalled.

Although Sen. Arlen Specter (R) remains popular, the fact that the Keystone State is trending ever more Democratic means he could face a strong challenge in two years. It’s also possible that Specter, who is 78 and suffers from Hodgkin’s disease, could retire after five terms in the Senate, creating a wide-open race to succeed him.

It’s a scenario that Hoeffel knows more than a little bit about: A former Congressman who is now a Montgomery County commissioner, Hoeffel himself ran against Specter in 2004. Accordingly, he advised Matthews to “take a page” from the playbook of one of his “Hardball” TV guests, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and do a listening tour around the entire state in 2009 if he wants to run.

“Frankly, I think he needs to do that,” Hoeffel said. “His celebrity is a two-edge sword.”

Because of his celebrity status, Matthews, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has lived in suburban Maryland for years, would have no trouble scheduling quiet meetings with state Democratic bosses, but Hoeffel advised him to take time to meet people all over Pennsylvania.

In media interviews, Matthews has been coy about a potential bid. But in an appearance this spring with host Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” Matthews confessed his longtime interest in holding office.

“Did you ever want to be something your whole life? Besides this?” Matthews asked. “You know some kids group up and they want to be a fireman? I wanted to be a Senator. … But you know, I have to deal with these things as they come.”

But it’s unclear just how serious Matthews, who has worked on Capitol Hill and in the White House, is about mounting a bid for Senate. Hoeffel said that while Matthews had spontaneously discussed a bid with him, he had not heard of him talking with other people about the race. And a handful of other Democratic operatives from across the state said they had heard Matthews was talking with folks about the race, but others said neither they nor anyone they knew had talked with him specifically about a bid.

Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen said he had a “peripheral” conversation with Matthews about a bid for the seat, though he’s not sure how his candidacy would play in the state.

“He’s a celebrity,” Groen said. “A lot of people in the county watch his show. But I can’t tell you that he has a specific kind of following in the county that would be different than any other part of the state, other than his family is from here.”

Matthews’ brother, Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews (R), is already an elected official in the area and lost a statewide bid for lieutenant governor in 2006.

Democratic Party Southwest Caucus Chairman Jack Hanna said he had heard Matthews was talking about a bid with notable Democrats in the area, but said he has yet to receive a personal phone call.

“The contacts are being made, and he’s in the process of laying the groundwork for potentially future actions and efforts,” Hanna said.

Hanna said that by letting party leaders know of his interest, Matthews is taking an important step to ward off any other potential Democratic candidates from entering the race.

“He may not run, but it prevents other people who are going to be influential with regard to the decision-making process free for him,” Hanna said. “It’s easier to enter the race when there’s not Chris Matthews than when there is.”

But Matthews is not the only one who is rumored to be interested in running for Specter’s seat.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s (D) name is the most-often mentioned as a potential candidate. She represents Philadelphia and its suburbs.

According to a Schwartz spokeswoman, Matthews has never contacted her about a potential bid, nor has he ever invited her to be on his television program.

If Schwartz does not run, another Democratic operative said that deputy state Speaker Josh Shapiro (D), who was Hoeffel’s chief of staff when Hoeffel served in the House, might be a potential candidate. According to the Democrat, if Schwartz runs for Senate, Shapiro would likely run for her Congressional seat.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D) is also mentioned as a possible candidate, though his office said Matthews has never contacted him about a bid. Sestak has appeared on “Hardball” a handful of times, most recently on July 30, according to the television program’s Web site.

But another frequent “Hardball” guest, Gov. Ed Rendell (D), could prove a good model for a Matthews candidacy should Matthews decide to run, Democratic consultant Mark Nevins said

“There’s probably no bigger personality in Pennsylvania, and I mean that personality and in celebrity status, than Gov. Rendell,” Nevins said. “Chris Matthews can look at that and feel comfortable, being a little outspoken, being larger than life.”

Nevins warned, however, that voters are not looking to a screen test to figure out how they feel about Matthews.

“Whether or not he is able to translate his personality on screen, on television to a rally in front of thousands of people, is the real question mark about a Chris Matthews campaign,” he said.

Matthews is no stranger to behind-the-scenes politicking. As a former top aide to then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and a one-time staffer for President Jimmy Carter, he got to know the nitty-gritty of partisan politics. In fact, this would not be Matthews’ first bid for office: He lost a Democratic primary for a House seat in northeast Philadelphia in 1974.

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz recalled how Matthews knocked on his door that cycle asking for his help in the primary. Butkovitz, who was a local Democratic activist at the time, declined.

The next time the two met was at the Democratic National Convention in Denver earlier this year — and this time it was Butkovitz who was asking for a photo with Matthews, who attended a Pennsylvania delegation breakfast.

Thirty-four years later, Butkovitz said Matthews might get a different answer from him, though the two have not spoken about it yet.

“I’d be very open to it,” Butkovitz said. “I think he demonstrates a very strong practical knowledge of the process on his TV show, and I watch that pretty religiously. I think he would be a pretty charismatic candidate.”

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