NEW YORK (AP) -- 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. Bush in 2000.
He's a motor-mouth infused with a love of politics that borders on the pathological.
"He's as good as he's ever been," said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president. "He's at a place in his life where he's really comfortable in his own skin. He's a statesman. He has so much knowledge and I think he understands it better. He's always been great, but I really think he's been at the peak of his game."