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For Crist and Davis, it's time to play hardball

Chris Matthews moderates tonight's debate.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published October 30, 2006


Chris Matthews is a motor-mouth interrogator whose in-your-face interview style has been parodied everywhere from Saturday Night Live to the pages of this newspaper.

But ask him about the grumbling from some in Florida that his gregarious personality might overshadow the gubernatorial debate he is moderating tonight, and the host of MSNBC's Hardball offers a simple promise.

"Five words: If I can do it, I'll ask questions that are just five words long," he said Friday, calling from his office in Washington, D.C. "The two candidates are going to be the stars of this night. My job is to make sure people see as much of them as possible and learn as much about them as possible. I want people who watch this program to walk away saying, 'I think I know these guys now.' "

Matthews' fitness for the job came into question earlier this month, as Republican Charlie Crist's campaign balked at an informal format suggested by debate organizers and others wondered why a Florida-based journalist wasn't headlining such a high-profile event.

The statewide alliance of NBC affiliates that organized tonight's debate and Wednesday's final matchup between U.S. Senate candidates Bill Nelson and Katherine Harris chose to bring the network's biggest political guns to bear as moderators - tapping Matthews and Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Both debates also will air on MSNBC.

Matthews declined to speculate on whether the Crist campaign's objections were rooted in an effort to limit the front-runner's exposure to Democrat Jim Davis, insisting that the format was developed by Florida stations without his input.

And the host, who has a disarming tendency to answer questions on current issues with historical references, wasn't too thrilled with the idea of an unstructured debate setting, anyway.

"Every candidate has a right to worry about format. President Bush in 1992 was very ill-advised by his staff to go out there as president of the United States and sit on a stool," he said, referring to the classic matchup between the incumbent, the elder George Bush, and candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, where Bush was caught by cameras checking his watch, as if he had better things to do.

"I think a little dignity is in order. ... I prefer debates where the candidates are a good distance apart, they're standing at lecterns and they're speaking - none of this faux conversational approach," he added. "It's not complicated. It's about class, self-confidence, how well you do with the questions, and your positions, obviously."

Earlier this year, Matthews moderated a debate among mayoral candidates in New Orleans in which he needled one participant to name specific local politicians she thought were corrupt. And his machine-gun style of questioning - perfected on both Hardball and the syndicated Sunday political broadcast The Chris Matthews Show - seems tailor-made for throwing politicians off their talking points and pat answers.

This debate comes at a crucial time for the Crist-Davis contest, which has been a low-key affair until recently. Crist has three times the cash on hand, allowing him to saturate the airwaves with TV ads and dot highways with billboards. But some polls show the race tightening as Davis has launched his own ads and received media attention for his plans to reduce property taxes and lower the cost of property insurance.

Crist has said he wants to continue the progress made under Gov. Jeb Bush, but has staked out moderate positions on everything from stem cell research to supporting public calls for lower class sizes. He has called attention to his work as the state's attorney general, such as fighting gas price gouging, and said he will continue fighting as the "people's governor."

Crist has hammered his opponent as a do-nothing Washington politician, complete with an ad showing an empty office chair wheeling through the capital as a family from Florida looks for its congressman.

Davis, who has missed many votes while campaigning, points to an overall career voting attendance record of 90 percent or better. He is running as an outsider, despite having served in the state Legislature from 1988 to 1996.

Davis points out that, unlike Crist, he has children and owns a home - factors that Davis contends make him more attuned to the problems with education and insurance. He blasts Crist for wanting to "stay the course" and for his silence during the Terri Schiavo end-of-life debate and while lawmakers developed legislation to deal with the property insurance crisis.

But a question about which of these issues he might explore during tonight's debate brings a quick demurral from Matthews, who chuckled cryptically. The last thing he wants to do is give his subjects a heads-up on which topics might come up during their hourlong meeting.

After 15 years in Democratic politics including stints as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and an aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill and 15 years covering Washington for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, Matthews, 60, knows the rhythms of politics well. And with nearly 10 years hosting Hardball under his belt, he also knows how to bring those rhythms to a TV audience.

"I'm going to look for philosophical differences; I'm going to look for where they disagree in principle, what they seem to care about," he said.

"I know one thing: The voters watching will understand me. And if the candidates have a good night, they'll understand them, too."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.