By Erik Wasson and Russell Berman - 08/31/12 08:27 PM EDT
TAMPA, Fla. — MSNBC host Chris Matthews got into a heated exchange with Republican delegates at a Tampa restaurant early Friday morning following the conclusion of the GOP national convention.
Matthews was booed and sworn at as he was leaving the Tinatapas restaurant, which is near the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Matthews turned back and confronted the taunting GOP officials. The Hill witnessed the exchange and interviewed Republican delegates after the confrontation.
He headed back into the restaurant to mix it up with them. “I wanted to confront them,” Matthews said, describing his exchange with the men as “towel-snapping” among guys.
Matthews said he told the rowdy group, “What’s this, a douchebag convention?”
The Republicans became angry and retorted back.
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“I told him that’s next week," said New York delegate Anthony Nunziato, referring to the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., that will start on Tuesday.
In a statement emailed to The Hill on Friday afternoon, Matthews said, “I was talking to this 2 a.m. get-together of loud-talking people who had been heckling me from inside a restaurant and were now huddled together around a table. It was that get-together, right there in front of me; that was the ‘convention’ I was towel-snapping about. When The Hill called me and suggested I might have been referring to the Republican National Convention I couldn’t believe it. That’s wrong.”
He added, “I was trying in my way to engage, as I often do, with critics, hoping to find some common ground. Sometimes it works out better than this.”
Sal Bacarella, who was in town to attend the convention, told The Hill that when Matthews entered the restaurant, New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, a GOP delegate, waved to him. But Matthews snubbed Ulrich, according to Bacarella.
Ulrich then attempted to acknowledge Matthews as the "Hardball" host exited the restaurant, a gesture that Matthews answered with a "dirty look," prompting loud boos from other delegates at the restaurant, Bacarella said.
One convention-goer yelled out "hey, a--hole," to Matthews, at which point the combative host walked back toward the hostile bunch.
The delegates said that they asked Matthews whether he had gotten a thrilling sensation from Mitt Romney’s speech on Thursday night, and Matthews responded that he had not.
Following a 2008 speech by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, Matthews said, "I felt this thrill going up my leg."
The “Hardball” host made news earlier this week after he got into a heated argument on "Morning Joe" with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Matthews accused the GOP and the Romney campaign of playing the race card.
Priebus said Matthews's comments were “garbage,” and Matthews responded, "It's your garbage."
The RNC head subsequently called Matthews "unhinged" and "hysterical."
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this article.