Posted: Jan. 15, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

If Chris Matthews really wanted to play hardball, he needed to press U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. on the question the Delaware Democrat loves to hate, the one about whether he will try for the presidential nomination in 2004.

Matthews did.

The television host of the "Hardball" political show on MSNBC barked the question Wednesday night at Biden, his featured guest, right off the bat. He had to -- after the hometown crowd watching the broadcast at the University of Delaware greeted Biden like a rock star.

But the six-term senator -- someone who prides himself on being able to go eyeball-to-eyeball with world despots because of his leadership seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- let this one go by.

"I'm considering it. I'm not being smart with you," Biden said.

More questions came, rapid fire.

Is the Republican President George W. Bush beatable? "Clearly."

Could you beat him? "I don't know about that."

Before the hour-long show was over, if Biden did not close the door on a presidential bid, he also opened it on another possibility. "If I were the new president's secretary of state . . ." he said at one point.

The exchanges were part of the "Hardball College Tour." It is Matthews' road show, which takes him to college campuses on Wednesdays to do his interviews before audiences. Other recent shows featured Gov. Jesse Ventura at the University of Minnesota and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the University of Albany, according to the MSNBC Web site.

This one was broadcast from Mitchell Hall at the University of Delaware, where Biden earned a bachelor's degree in 1965 before getting a law degree at Syracuse University in 1968. Four years later as a precocious 29-year-old he was on his way to the Senate.

Matthews called Biden "one of the youngest men ever elected to the United States Senate, now described as a party elder." Biden turned 60 in November.

Mitchell Hall was standing room only. There were more than 700 people inside and hundreds more watching in a room set up with a big screen television in Gore Hall, the next building over on the Newark campus.

Biden looked as though he was having the time of his life, even as Matthews braced him about a number of volatile topics, including affirmative action and foreign policy.

Will there ever come a time, Matthews asked, when people are judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said?

"I don't think it's going to come as long as this administration is around," Biden shot back.

Matthews wanted to know whether Bush can go it alone in Iraq.

"He can, but he shouldn't," Biden said, explaining that United Nations support is crucial not for the warfare but for an aftermath that could last three to five years. "This is going to be something like putting Humpty Dumpty together again."

The evening unfolded as a Delaware happening. Not only did the crowd come out, but before the telecast, University of Delaware President David P. Roselle and his wife Louise hosted a reception at the stately President's House.

The guest list was drawn largely from the University of Delaware. It was also full of Bidens -- Joe's wife Jill, his mother Jean, his sister Valerie, his sons Beau and Hunter and various spouses. Naturally there also was a sprinkling of Republicans, including John M. Burris, who ran against Joe Biden in 1984, and Pierre du Pont Hayward, the university secretary who was an aide to U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. in an earlier life.

Matthews wore a University of Delaware baseball cap at the reception.

Matthews is an old hand at his "Hardball" format. He has been doing the show, first on CNBC and then on MSNBC, since 1997. He also has written political books, including Hardball in 1988, Kennedy & Nixon in 1996 and Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think in 2001. He was the Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner from 1987 to 2000.

Matthews, who grew up in Philadelphia, earned his political spurs as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a top aide to U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., the late Massachusetts Democrat, in addition to other insider jobs.

It was from Tip O'Neill that Matthews appears to have learned his "Hardball" television technique, according to an account in Hardball the book. The master of the political game used to drain his staff for information with a barrage of "Whaddaya hear?"

Matthews wrote: "While O'Neill respected his staff, even bragged about us, there was one failing he would not suffer -- being out of the know."

O'Neill retired as speaker in 1987, but Chris Matthews has yet to be out of the know.