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Zell proves to the GOP that a Democrat can be a real independent thinker

Republican hardliners have a term of derision they use for a GOP elected official who does not toe the party line with sufficient zeal: “Republican in Name Only” or, more simply, “RINO.”

They likewise have terms for a Democratic lawmaker who ridicules his own party’s presidential candidates, goes on the campaign trail to endorse the opposition ticket and votes lockstep with the GOP leadership. Those terms include “independent thinker,” “maverick” and, somewhat paradoxically, “man of principle.”

And of all the Democratic mavericks out there now, none is more cherished by conservatives than Georgia’s own short-tempered ex-governor Zell Miller. So it was no surprise that there was much, much love on display for Democratic Sen. Miller last weekend, at — of all places — the state Republican convention in Columbus.

Outside, the mid-May sky was bright and the air thick and hot. But inside the city’s handsome Civic Center (home to Arena Football 2’s Columbus Wardogs, 1-4) was a pressure-cooker of super-heated conservative politicking. Senate candidates tried to outflank each other, campaigners handed out stickers and yard signs, and vendors sold doggy chew toys in the shape of Hillary Clinton.

While Miller never actually set foot on the convention floor during the two-day event, he had full command of the celebrity spotlight when he gave a rip-snorting keynote address to the Bush/Cheney faithful Saturday morning. Speaking to a couple hundred of the most hardcore GOP delegates — who were packed into a sweltering, low-ceilinged conference room — he was undeniably the star attraction, king of the “DINOs,” Zellosaurus Rex.

Shouts of “Give ‘em hell, Zell!” and “Amen!” echoed more than once among the crowd as Miller spooled off one zinger after another aimed at fellow Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

Whether comparing Kerry to lefty documentary filmmaker Michael Moore or trashing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s record on military funding — “The man now wants to be the commander in chief of U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what, spitballs?” — Miller clearly was basking in the adoration he’s now receiving from Republicans.

Certainly he was in rare form, sending the crowd into hysterics as he attacked Kerry’s grasp of Middle-American values by quipping that the Massachusetts senator “couldn’t find Main Street with both hands.”

It seemed that the folks who jumped to their feet to give him a rousing standing ovation had forgotten that this was (sort of) the same Zell Miller who’d delivered Bill Clinton’s 1992 nominating speech — a speech in which Miller seemed to predict the rise of George W. Bush when he intoned, “We can’t all be born rich, handsome and lucky ... and that’s why we have the Democratic Party.”

On Saturday, however, Miller was allowed to put more than 40 years of political history behind him as he provided one of the high points of a day of self-congratulatory celebration of all things Republican.

“It’s no wonder they didn’t have anyone speak after Zell,” one beaming delegate said. “Who could follow that?”

Certainly not Gov. Sonny Perdue or U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, both of whom had briefly addressed the gathering before Miller. Not U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson, either, who lurked at the edge of the room — obviously looking for some magic to rub off on his own bid for Miller’s Senate seat — as the audience surged forward to have their photos taken with Miller and get the turncoat Democrat’s autograph on Bush/Cheney campaign signs.

Sporting a Bush/Cheney sticker on his lapel, Miller posed for grip-and-grins with former state GOP Chairman and Christian-right attack dog Ralph Reed before finally taking his rock-star self out of the building.

After that early kick-start, the convention settled into the kind of predictable pace that usually makes these events deadly boring for anyone not actually running for office.

Even as the hours wore on, however, there was a palpable charge in the air that came from the collective realization that, for the first time in living memory, the Georgia Republican Party stands a better-than-fair chance at winning both U.S. Senate seats and both chambers of the Statehouse, to go along with its congressional majority and the governor’s office.

Perhaps the real surprise of the post-Zell day came from the enthusiastic reception that greeted Herman Cain, the ultra-conservative African-American business executive from McDonough. Cain, who seems to be closing the gap in the Senate primary race against two more familiar candidates, stated that while Isakson would make a fine senator, he himself is prepared to really shake up Washington. His other GOP rival, Rep. Mac Collins, went unmentioned.

Collins then went on to focus a similar attack on Isakson’s reputation for occupying the middle of the road, arguing that after America suffered terrorist assaults abroad and “attacks on moral values, it’s not time to send a moderate to the U.S. Senate.”

Isakson, for his part, labored mightily to show the audience that he could talk the talk of steely-eyed conservatism, even if he’d only begun to walk the walk after leaving state politics for Congress in 1999. In Washington, he’s accumulated a partisan Republican voting record.

“This is the ultimate war between good and evil,” he said of the occupation in Iraq, before assuring the crowd that he was itching to confirm a mess of conservative federal judges.

Then he stepped into a GOP fantasy realm that was too much even for some of those assembled.

“George W. Bush is the best president the United States has ever had,” he announced.

A man in the audience who had been underscoring the speechmaking with the occasional “Damn straight” or “That’s for sure” suddenly perked up, muttering, “Well, I don’t know about that ... .”

If Zell had been within earshot, doubtless he would have given this doubter some hell.