Talk of the Town - Mack's mission September 09 2000

Coverdell friend challenges Miller

When former Sen. Mack Mattingly arrived for the grand opening of the new Cherokee County GOP headquarters recently, the woman handing out nametags smiled broadly. "Good to see you again," she told the guest of honor, "It's been a long time." As the woman filled out his nametag, the candidate — and at least one nearby newspaper columnist — got a none-too-subtle reminder of just how long it's been: She got his first name wrong.

"That's not my name," he explained, picking up the pen.

Well, it has been a long time. Mack Mattingly — that's M-A-C-K, people — last ran for office in 1986, losing his Senate re-election bid to Democrat Wyche Fowler. In 1992, Mattingly's longtime friend and fellow Republican Paul Coverdell returned the favor, sending Fowler home after a legendary runoff.

Now, 14 years after his last race and some seven weeks since Coverdell's untimely passing, Mattingly is running to reclaim his friend's Senate seat from Democrat Zell Miller.

Most political pundits will tell you Mattingly doesn't have a proverbial snowball's chance in hell against Miller, the popular ex-governor, but the St. Simon's businessman is undeterred. To Mattingly, who never thought he would run for office again, the race is about doing what's right by his late friend — and the people who re-elected Coverdell in 1998.

"This race," Mattingly told the Cherokee faithful, "is not about Mack Mattingly. It's not about Zell Miller. But this race is about Paul Coverdell, the legacy he left, his beliefs and values, his Republican conservative philosophy, and making certain that philosophy continues."

Mattingly makes a good case for himself as Coverdell's logical successor. As he points out, Georgia voters did re-elect a GOP conservative just two years ago, expecting to have him serve six years. And there is, as Mattingly argues, a sense among many Republicans that Coverdell's seat was "stolen" by Gov. Roy Barnes' appointment of Miller.

Mattingly is an appealing would-be heir to Coverdell. He is an experienced legislator but, to his credit, he has not spent his entire career in government. (He worked for IBM for 20 years before entering public life.) Fit and energetic at 69, Mattingly looks 10 years younger.

Mattingly should also be able to raise money quickly, a critical ability in an abbreviated race. He has remained active in GOP politics over the years, quietly supporting and advising others. And he has friends in high places with the Bush organization. (President Bush made Mattingly an ambassador.)

Yet, even as Mattingly begins to answer the "Why Mack?" question, the odds against him remain long. Given Miller's popularity, the first question for many swing voters is likely to be "Why not Zell?" If Mattingly is to contend seriously, he will need to give people more than a reason to vote for him. He will have to make a case against Miller, no easy task given the unique circumstances of the race.

Thus far, Mattingly has been reluctant to criticize his opponent directly. He has nipped around the edges, saying Miller can't "fill the shoes of Paul Coverdell" and noting that his rival would, if elected, likely serve in the Senate minority. Mattingly is closer to the mark when he says Miller's election would mean more power for the Senate's liberal Democratic leaders.

Tying Miller to beltway Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle won't be easy, but it may be Mattingly's best hope. Such an approach would also have the benefit of being accurate. For as moderate as Miller may have been as Georgia's governor, he would become, in Washington, a junior member of a decidedly liberal team, a silver-haired cog in the national Democratic machine.

No dope, Miller is deftly dodging high-profile Democratic functions. He skipped his party's L.A. convention — the one where they booed the Boy Scouts — and was conspicuously absent when Al Gore and Joe Lieberman recently campaigned at Centennial Olympic Park.

If Mattingly does manage to make the race interesting, he would still need a couple of breaks to win. Long Bush coattails would help, certainly. Depressed turnout among Democrats would help, too.

Come to think of it, nasty weather on Election Day might be just the ticket for Mattingly's improbable snowball.

Contact Luke Boggs at lukeboggs@ hotmail.com.

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