When I first met Joe Scarborough in 2003, he looked like a guy stuck in an ill-fitting suit.
Back then, the former Pensacola congressman was hosting a show for MSNBC called Scarborough Country, and the channel seemed bent on turning him into the next Bill O'Reilly — complete with a Real Deal commentary segment that echoed his Fox News Channel rival's Talking Points feature.
What a difference five years can make.
These days, Scarborough is basking in success as the guy who picked up the pieces from Don Imus' career disintegration, debuting Morning Joe in May 2007 to eventually score viewership matching the shock jock's old simulcasts.
And as the Republican National Convention begins Monday, covering the event may present a new challenge for the conservative whom liberals love to watch — a guy who has heaped praise on Hillary Clinton while savaging the GOP for everything from the administration's lack of response after Hurricane Katrina to its costly war in Iraq.
Ask Scarborough about the change — as I did after a press conference here in July — and he'll launch into a well-worn story about liberals near his apartment on New York's Upper West Side loving his show "because I'm honest. … I go after Republicans and Democrats."
A moment later, he delivers the punch line in a stage whisper: "I really think they just like seeing a Republican attack Republicans."
Indeed, Scarborough is the last openly conservative anchor left at MSNBC, amid charges the cable newschannel is developing a liberal slant in the same way Fox News seems to tilt right.
Executives and some anchors there deny it, but the move to give a new show to Rachel Maddow — best known as a host on liberal-oriented radio network Air America and substitute host for liberal MSNBC voice Keith Olbermann — sparked a blizzard of media columns concluding the cable channel was mining left-wing anchors.
Scarborough says Morning Joe — a freewheeling, often unscripted discussion with newsreader Mika Brzezinski and sidekick Willie Geist — is succeeding mostly because it reflects viewers' postpartisan yearnings.
"When I went to talk with Hillary the first time … I recognized a weariness of partisanship," Scarborough said. "Just an attitude … let's figure out how to make this work. ... You take someone like Hillary Clinton and where she was in 1994 and where I was in 1994 — I'm guessing we were on the extremes of ideological lines. Now, I would say we're fairly close together."
Although a look at Scarborough's positions shows he may have traveled a little further than Clinton for their ideological meeting.
For example, on Morning Joe Thursday, the guy who once accused Al Sharpton of anti-Semitism while linking him to Al Gore mostly criticized Democrats for not attacking Republicans more.
"When I was in Congress, I spent most of my time with Democrats," said Scarborough, elected to Congress in 1994 as part of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution.
"I've had a lot of people at MSNBC who are no longer at MSNBC kick me around for the first two years because they wanted me to be a carnival barker," added the host, who credits wife Susan with encouraging him to be less partisan from the beginning. "And I do feel a sense of vindication that you don't have to be ideologically terse to survive."
But Scarborough's postpartisan attitude may be challenged by the impact of Olbermann's advocacy on the channel.
During coverage of the Democratic convention last week, MSNBC hosts made headlines more for their on-air spats than for any news reporting. In particular, Scarborough emerged at the center of a dust-up with correspondent David Shuster, which led industry trade magazine Variety to speculate if "Scarborough's patience with MSNBC's lefty tilt in prime-time coverage has grown thin."
Objecting to an offhand comment Tuesday morning from Shuster referring to the GOP as "your party," Scarborough spent several uncomfortable minutes challenging the implication. "My party loathes me much more than your party loathes me. … David, what's your party?"
Later, Scarborough told National Public Radio, "I get frustrated by people who have an obvious partisan bias that don't proclaim that bias," he said, though he later denied he was talking about Shuster. "I'm not uncomfortable with a guy like (Sean) Hannity or (Bill) O'Reilly or Olbermann, because anybody tuning in can tell they're not passing themselves off as objective journalists."
Now he seems most comfortable as the host you can't pin down. "It was never a role I felt comfortable in — being shocked and stunned six segments a night," he said. "Katrina came along and we were more aggressive than anyone else and it fed naturally to this. … Right now, we're defying gravity."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.