NEW YORK - He's become the target for critics who think a backlash against the media played a part in Hillary Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire. Chris Matthews laughs off that idea, and insists he has a lot of respect for her.

The MSNBC "Hardball" host had more explaining to do after Clinton's victory when he said that the reason Clinton is a candidate for president "is that her husband messed around."

"I do like the fact that 'Hardball' is a heat-seeker," the rapid-fire political commentator told The Associated Press. "My job is to provide excitement and to bring it into the show and have people argue about things that they would normally argue about."

Matthews was the focal point for the anger many women felt at how Clinton's candidacy seemed to be written off with lightning speed following a loss in Iowa and foreboding poll numbers in New Hampshire. He is a man and he is ever sure of himself.

He also had a history: The liberal watchdog Media Matters for America counted more than eight negative remarks Matthews made about Clinton for every positive one during September, October and November.

Another study, by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, found that 58 per cent of stories on Clinton on the main ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News Channel newscasts from the beginning of October to mid-December were dominated by negative comments. By contrast, 61 per cent of the comments about Barack Obama were positive, and so was 67 per cent of the John Edwards coverage.

Watching "ill-disguised hatred and resentment" toward Clinton in the days before New Hampshire made writer Rebecca Traister feel guilty that she hadn't stood up for Clinton before.

"Had I been a New Hampshire voter on Tuesday, I would have pulled a lever for the former first lady with a song in my heart and a bird flipped at MSNBC's Chris Matthews," Traister wrote in Salon.

Blogger Christy Hardin Smith in Firedoglake also seethed.

"Chris Matthews, it's high time for you to go," she wrote. "None of us dainty ladies out here who depend on our husbands to get anywhere in life will pull out our lace hankies, drop into our fainting couches and cry a single tear when you're gone."

Matthews said he believe it was a time of great sensitivity in America and that nerves are rawer now over gender than race. People are looking for ways to make statements and criticizing him is one way to do it, he said.

"I will say this about Hillary Clinton, I've said it a thousand times on my show, when I'm with Hillary Clinton, I like her," he said. "If it has to do with the two of us getting along or me respecting her intellect, it's obvious to anyone who has seen us together ... that she is intellectually stimulating as a human being and is always positive."

Matthews also said Clinton displayed real courage under fire the final few days of the New Hampshire campaign in the way she kept fighting even though she knew she would probably lose.

Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson declined a chance to offer his opinion of Matthews.

Toward the end of his primary coverage on Tuesday, Matthews remarked that he would never underestimate Clinton again.

After a short night's sleep, Matthews appeared on Joe Scarborough's morning MSNBC show and said Clinton's appeal has always been about a mix of toughness and sympathy.

"Let's not forget, and I'll be brutal, the reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a frontrunner, is that her husband messed around," he said.

Bam! That quote raced around the Internet and unleashed a fresh round of anger toward Matthews at a time emotions were already frayed.

Joy Behar went on the attack on "The View," saying it felt like men were piling on Clinton.

"I thought it was a patently ridiculous statement to make after having stated so emphatically the night before that he would never underestimate Hillary Clinton again," said Rachel Maddow, a liberal commentator and "Air America" talk show host who was on the MSNBC set that night.

However, she also said Matthews is the best political analyst on television for his knowledge, quickness and ability to be critical while anchoring a broadcast.

"Chris is relatively impervious to criticism," she said. "I think Chris does what he wants."

Matthews said his comments referred to the late 1990s, when Clinton made some appearances to support New York Senator Chuck Schumer and impressed pols with her grace under pressure during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Shortly thereafter, she was asked to run for the Senate from New York.

He's surprised more people - particularly the women on "The View" - don't remember that as the birth of her political career.

"I thought it was an unexceptional statement," he said.