NEW YORK — It certainly can't be a bad thing for a man with a political talk show called "Hardball" to be nearly challenged to a duel by a U.S. senator.
MSNBC has quickly moved to take advantage of Sen. Zell Miller's combative GOP convention interview with Chris Matthews, featuring it in advertisements. It was Matthews' second eye-popping exchange with a guest in a month.
Matthews is hot right now, and not just under the collar.
"Hardball" and parts of Matthews' Republican convention coverage gave his network some surprising ratings victories over CNN. The former print reporter whose volume and energy switches never seem off may just be the man to lead MSNBC out of the wilderness.
"Politics is certainly on the top of the minds of people and Chris is the best person on cable doing it," said his boss, NBC News President Neal Shapiro.
Matthews' much-replayed interview with Miller came less than two hours after the Democratic senator spoke to the convention in favor of President Bush, torching Bush's Democratic opponent, John Kerry.
Displeased with the line of questioning, Miller told Matthews to "get out of my face."
"I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel," Miller said.
Said Matthews, in retrospect: "I was as fascinated by the experience as the viewer was."
Bush supporters' suspicion of Matthews was raised a few weeks earlier following his exchange with conservative columnist Michelle Malkin. During a discussion of the Swift boat controversy, Malkin said there were "legitimate questions" about whether one of Kerry's war wounds in Vietnam was self-inflicted.
"What do you mean by self-inflicted?" Matthews shot back. "Are you saying he shot himself on purpose? Is that what you're saying?"
Malkin dodged the question. So Matthews asked it again. And again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
Eleven times. Matthews grew increasingly angry, and Malkin exasperated. It was gripping television.
He eventually cut her off.
"We are going to keep things clean on this show," Matthews said. "No irresponsible comments are going to be made on this show."
Malkin, who did not respond to a request for an interview, called Matthews a "foaming jerk" in her column the next day.
"What happened last night was pure slimeball and the unfair, unbalanced and unhinged purveyors of journalism, or whatever it is they call what they do at MSNBC, should be ashamed," Malkin wrote.
Faced with a subject who avoids answering a question, many reporters let it slide, letting the non-answer speak for itself. Sometimes they rephrase the question.
But 11 times?
"You can't just come out like on some blog site or some speaker's corner, throw it against the wall and see if it sticks," Matthews said. "I've got to be their editor, and challenge them, at least.... We don't have a corrections page."
Political professionals aren't naive in how they plant seeds of doubt with little factual basis, he said. If they're not challenged, many viewers will simply believe what they heard, he said.
"My guess is Chris might have wanted to pull back a bit," Shapiro said. "But in terms of not getting an answer, I think it's appropriate to probe."
Miller even had Malkin's interview on his mind during the senator's later exchange with Matthews.
"Don't pull that kind of stuff on me, like you did that young lady when you had her there, browbeating her to death," he said.
Matthews, in an interview, said: "When somebody comes on my show and makes an allegation that somebody committed a felony, I'm going to browbeat them. I want them to say the truth. And if they can't come out with the truth, they shouldn't be talking."
Miller came to MSNBC convention night after a speech many analysts called angry. He preceded his MSNBC interview with one on CNN that was pointed but with fewer fireworks.
The MSNBC appearance went quickly downhill after Matthews tried to put specifics to some one-liners in Miller's speech. For instance, when Miller used the metaphor of Kerry using "spitballs" for weapons, Matthews asked, "Do you mean to say that you really believe that John Kerry and Ted Kennedy do not believe in defending the country?"
Matthews actually went into a defensive stance when Miller's verbal fisticuffs began, the equivalent of someone saying, "whoa," and stepping back from a cocked fist.
"I thought the Miller thing was just funny," said Steve Lovelady, managing editor of Campaigndesk.org, a Columbia University-affiliated site that monitors political coverage. "I don't think Matthews was being aggressive at all. He walked into a cage with a tiger."
Having Matthews as host on big political nights has proven wise for MSNBC. It allows his love of politics to shine through yet corrals his heavily caffeinated style, simply because he's forced to involve and interact with other panelists. The same is true for Matthews' successful Sunday chat show.
MSNBC will take Matthews on the road to outdoor studios this fall surrounding the debates. His daily show will turn into "Hardball Horserace" on Fridays, offering a week's review of what happened on the campaign trail.
You don't have to tell Matthews that he sometimes talks too much on "Hardball." He's working on it.
"I get so excited by what I'm hearing and what I'm getting engaged in that I want to keep pushing it," he said. "So I will punish myself by trying to say to my guests, 'but finish your thought.' If I force myself to go through the agony of saying that every time, I will eventually, eventually stop doing it.
"It's not exactly anger management," he said. "It's more like manners."