On his nightly MSNBC talk show called "Hardball," host Chris Matthews yaks incessantly about all sorts of things political.

But when asked if he might run in 2010 as the Democratic challenger to longtime Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia-area native hasn’t had much to say.

Even though Matthews generally dodges the question, several state political observers have mentioned him, in recent news stories, as a potential Democratic candidate.

And in a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday, the former newspaper reporter and presidential speechwriter trailed Specter by only a five-point margin, 41 percent to 36 percent. Matthews actually led the incumbent in the state’s two most populous counties, Allegheny and Philadelphia. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Among those Democrats polled, Matthews led 56 percent to 24 percent. But among GOP voters, the incumbent led by a hefty 63 percent to 16 percent. He also led by 44 percent to 27 percent among independents.

"Sen. Specter remains the most respected statewide public official in Pennsylvania," said Quinnipiac pollster Clay Richards, "but his age (78) and health problems could make him vulnerable to a challenge from ‘Hardball’s’ Chris Matthews."

He said that while Specter leads by five points overall in the theoretical match-up, there is a large undecided vote, and many voters don’t know enough about Matthews to have an opinion."

Although the cancer that has plagued Specter in the past has recurred, he has received treatments for it and insists he’s healthy enough to seek another six-year term in 2010.

Matthews couldn’t be reached at MSNBC studios in New York City, but another respected pollster, G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. said he and colleague Michael Young wrote several weeks ago about a possible Matthews Senate candidacy "and we concluded he would probably run."

"His contract at MSNBC is up in 2009, and Chris spent an extraordinary amount of time in Pennsylvania before the Democratic presidential primary in April," where Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama, Madonna said. "I think he’s testing the political waters. When asked (by various reporters), he hasn’t ruled out running. He hasn’t taken it off the table."

Gov. Ed Rendell, in Pittsburgh Tuesday, said Matthews has to decide whether he can give up the fame, money and celebrity that comes with his television show for the "gritty part of politics" that he once knew as a U.S. House staffer.

"Would Chris be the strongest Democrat . . . on the board right now? Probably, because of his celebrity and knowledge of politics," Rendell said. "But he has a lifestyle decision to make, first and foremost."

Unlike the governor’s race in 2010, where several major Democratic office holders are said to be interested, there haven’t been many Democrats mentioned as possible opponents to the tenacious Specter.

State Democratic Party spokesman Abe Amoros said he’s been working hard on the current presidential campaign and therefore hasn’t heard much speculation about Senate candidates for 2010.

But he added that Matthews "certainly presents a very interesting scenario, given his appeal and his knowledge of Washington."

Matthews has a long history in politics and journalism. Before becoming a TV talk show host, he spent 15 years as a newspaper journalist, most as Washington bureau chief for a San Francisco newspaper. Before that, he worked for 15 years in politics as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and top aide to former House Speaker Rep. Tip O’Neill, D-Mass.

E-mail Tom Barnes at tbarnes(at)post-gazette.com