On MSNBC's

Hardball

, host Chris Matthews often heaps scorn on politicians, but signs are growing that he wants to be one of them.

In recent weeks, Matthews has ramped up his exploration of a 2010 campaign, as a Democrat, against Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).

He has discussed the dynamics of a possible run with prominent Democratic fund-raisers, strategists and leaders from across his native Pennsylvania, according to several people who have spoken with Matthews during the last several months. He also is considering buying a house in the state.

All the activity has set the political world abuzz but also fueled speculation that Matthews is using his inquiry to gain leverage with MSNBC executives in negotiations for a contract extension.

"He is clearly interested," said Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, a former congressman who was the Democratic nominee against Specter in 2004. Matthews has consulted him twice in the last six weeks.

"I told him his celebrity is a double-edged sword," Hoeffel said. "It gives him name recognition, but when national celebrities come home after many years they run the risk of resentment. . . . He needs to go on a six-month listening tour, spend 2009 getting around Pennsylvania. It would gain him a ton of information and contacts, and demonstrate he's serious."

Last Monday, Matthews met with two top Democratic fund-raisers and incoming State Treasurer Rob McCord at the Wolf Block law firm in Philadelphia, where he conveniently set that night's Hardball broadcast on the eve of President-elect Barack Obama's meeting with the nation's governors.

Though he grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, Matthews has been gone for more than three decades, and he has said some inflammatory and just plain strange things on his show that could provide ammunition for opponents. For example, he said he felt "this thrill going up my leg" when Obama spoke after a primary victory.

But state politicos say that Matthews is smart, that he knows the game and the issues, and that his celebrity status could help him raise the $20 million needed for a credible race against Specter.

Before becoming a Washington journalist, first for the San Francisco Examiner and then on television, Matthews was a Democratic operative on Capitol Hill. He was later a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a high-level aide to the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D., Mass.).

In 1974, Matthews ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for a Northeast Philadelphia congressional seat.

Democratic strategists say they believe that Specter is more vulnerable than ever despite his moderate record on many issues because centrist Republican voters in the Northeastern United States have been deserting the party in recent years as it cleaves tighter to Southern religious conservatives. In the four suburban counties around Philadelphia alone, the GOP has lost 61,000 registered voters since 2004; Democrats now have a 1.2 million advantage in registration statewide.

"Arlen's race in 2010 would not be the same as it was in 2004. He might not get through a primary," said Democratic strategist Neil Oxman, Gov. Rendell's consultant. "The Republican electorate is more conservative."

In 2004, Specter barely survived a primary challenge, besting by about 17,000 votes Pat Toomey, then a conservative Lehigh Valley congressman and now head of the anti-tax Club for Growth. Toomey has left the door open to running against Specter again.

"I've been pushing Chris to run for years," Oxman said of Matthews. "He'd be a very formidable candidate."

Still, nobody underestimates Specter, least of all Matthews, according to those who have spoken with him. The political boneyard is full of people who did.

"I long ago adopted the philosophy of Satchel Paige, the old pitcher, and that is I never look over my shoulder, never look behind - somebody may be gaining on me," Specter, 78, said Nov. 30 in an interview with CNN. "I'll be prepared, whoever my opponents are."

Matthews, 62, declined to be interviewed for this article. MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the network would have no comment on a "speculative story."

Specter has raised $6 million for his reelection run during the last two years, and 62 percent of voters approved of his job performance, according to a Quinnipiac Poll last month. That's a higher rating than Rendell or Sen. Bob Casey Jr., both Democrats.

"It's interesting to watch, but Specter is not looking like roadkill to me at this point," said Michael Young, an independent pollster based in Harrisburg. "He has enormous knowledge of state politics and tremendous tenacity and ferocity at defending his turf." As for Matthews, Young said, "being a rookie in a statewide race is a big handicap, and he is a highly polarizing figure."

Matthews is often derided as a loudmouthed bully on the air, and some feminist groups and supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y) remain angry at Matthews for his coverage of her in the Democratic presidential primary. At one point, Matthews had to apologize after saying that Clinton got where she was only because "her husband messed around." The host also said that voters would not want to watch a woman growing old in the White House.

He also might not be as famous as he thinks. A Quinnipiac survey in late November showed that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters did not know enough about Matthews to have formed an opinion of him. Specter was leading, 45 percent to 33 percent, in a hypothetical matchup.

In addition, Matthews might not have a clear primary field. U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Bucks County is said to be interested in running. U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, based in Delaware County, has $3 million on hand, fueling speculation. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, whose district is in Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia, has also not ruled out interest in a Senate race, though advisers say she has taken no steps to gear up for one. And state Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) is weighing a run.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.