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Hardball's Matthews Smears GOP Candidates with Bogeymen and Offers Nightmare of Clinton resurrection

If the historical Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 set the gold standard for campaign face-offs, last week's Republican chat-fest looked like mass assisted suicide.

Blame it on MSNBC's biased presentation and its ringleader, Chris Matthews. Matthews fired loaded questions at the 10 GOP candidates like a carnie barker at a penny toss. He set them up with soundbites that will help his friends on the left and attacked the Republican frontrunners with relentless follow-ups that the Democrat field did not endure under Democratic moderator Brian Williams.

Sitting on the sidelines for debate commentary was the fairest of them all, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, whose credentials as a political journalist rate up there with Rosie O'Donnell's. In the end, we learned nothing new from the candidates and affirmed that MSNBC constructed its debate formats to position Democrats as good and Republicans as really, really bad.

I watched the debate live, and then printed out transcripts of the Democrat and Republican events, both broadcast by MSNBC. I read each and dissected the so-called debates. The results show that MSNBC was much more fair to the Democrat candidates then the Republicans.

The Democrat debate transcripts ran 31 printed pages and the Republican's was 41. Part of the difference comes from the different styles of the moderators. Williams with the Democrats was more objective with fewer follow-up questions. Democrat candidates answered a total of 4 follow-up questions.

Republicans answered 22 follow-up questions from Matthews, known for his rat-a-tat, gotcha style of questioning. Matthews' biggest push was on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, needling him to describe in detail his well-known pro-choice position on abortion. Giuliani answered six follow-ups, Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney each answered four.

One might argue that Matthews was just trying to get specifics from the top runners. But if that were MSNBC's agenda, then why would Sen. Hillary Clinton get no follow-up questions from Williams? Sen. Barack Obama answered two, one of which was aimed at the Obama family's attempts to better the environment.

"We've also been working to install lightbulbs that last longer and save energy," Obama said, in part.

Contrast that with Matthews' focus on questions surrounding Romney's Mormon religion, which has been a weakness in his candidacy, according to polls, and his attempts to link Scooter Libby and Karl Rove to the candidates. And, of course, we can't overlook the when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife question.

"What's with your party and all this corruption," Matthews asked Sen. Sam Brownback. It was as if he wanted to trot out conservative bogeymen to scare voters already brainwashed by the likes of Olbermann.

No surprise, really. Red flags flew high about the Republican debate before Matthews' fired his first volley. The Democrats' moderator was Williams, a distinguished broadcast journalist who at least tries to appear as an objective newsman. The Republicans somehow drew the short straw and got Matthews, whose resume as a liberal political operative includes writing speeches for former President Jimmy Carter and working for Democrat House Speaker Tip O'Neill and two Democrat senators.

Before MSNBC assigned Matthews to serve as moderator, executives should have checked his moderation. A month before the GOP debate, Matthews, on his show "Hardball," went after Romney because he raised $23 million during the first reporting period, the tops in the GOP race.

Matthews said, in part, ". . .here we are we're going around killing people around the world to spread democracy, and what are we spreading? A form of government based on how much money you can raise from rich people, mainly."

And just to enforce the rich Republican conspiracy, Matthews continued later " . . . it seems to me that Romney who is running about 3 percent in the polls only has rich people behind him because if you look at the amount of money he's raised compared to the kind of support he has in the polls per capita it looks like they're all loaded."

During that discussion on April 3, Matthews did not criticize Hillary Clinton's $36 million war chest. He did not say she was getting money from only rich people. Matthews, who generally is not a Clinton cheerleader, employed class warfare to paint Romney as a rich boy who's just trying to buy himself a slot as commander in chief.

But Matthews' liberal credentials are anemic next to Olbermann's, whose biased, colorful and sometimes profane antics belie his posing as a fair commentator on presidential politics. Even the liberal Associated Press wrote a story on the irony that Olbermann would have an A-ticket to comment on MSNBC's debates.

"In an angry commentary on April 25, Olbermann accused Rudolph Giuliani of using the language of Osama bin Laden with "the same chilling nonchalance of the madman" to argue that Republicans would keep Americans safer than Democrats from terror," AP's May 4 article began.

Guiliani campaign rightfully contacted NBC over its concerns about Olbermann's high-profile position in the debate broadcast. But NBC News Senior Vice president Phil Griffin told the AP that the former sports broadcaster "knows to leave his opinions at home when he anchors events.

"Keith's an adult," Griffin said. "He can tell when it's appropriate to express himself in a commentary and when to be a journalist. That's one of his strengths. He knows exactly the tone and his role when he's doing anything."

Mr. Griffin needs to reconsider his statements. Olbermann has not only personally attacked many of the GOP candidates, he does not act like an adult when it comes to criticism of his work or opinions. And appropriate expressions are not Olbermann's strong suit.

Responding to hate mail, which rolls into most high-profile commentators, Olbermann has cursed and demeaned his critics with such thoughtful comments as, "Given how far you are from knowing your (expletive) from your elbow about my industry, you couldn't be stupider, wronger, or dumber," and "Go (expletive) your mother."

Not quite the response one would expect from a commentator of a presidential debate. But that is exactly the point. The MSNBC "debate" ignored the strong issues of the Republican contenders while highlighting their weaknesses. The Republicans fell right in place and allowed the puppeteers to yank their strings.

Perhaps one of the most telling questions of the Republican debate concerned the Clintons. It first went to Romney.

"Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House," Matthews asked.

"You have got to be kidding?" Romney said.

But Matthews wasn't joshing. Really, he wasn't.

Catherine Moy is a nationally recognized award-winning journalist and coauthor of "America Mourning: A story of two families."