Talk of the Town - Miller's second chance August 05 2000

Lifelong Georgia pol finally takes the office of his dreams

Let's turn the clock back to 1980: Lt. Governor Zell Miller has just lost his bid to defeat Sen. Herman Talmadge, denying a dejected Miller the one political office he had always coveted. His hero was Georgia's legendary Sen. Richard Russell and Miller, like Russell, wanted to make his mark in the U.S. Senate. Miller yearned for a national voice, to expand his reach and influence beyond Georgia's border. History will properly record Miller's missed opportunity in 1980, but it will also reflect that he twice was elected governor, and left office with the highest popular approval of any modern governor. While Miller's portrait wouldn't hang in the U.S. Capitol, it would enjoy a place of honor under Georgia's Gold Dome; one day, a statute to his passion for Georgia will grace the Statehouse grounds.

Rarely in a politician's life does an honest-to-goodness second chance occur. Two weeks ago, with the untimely death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, an opportunity beyond Miller's control opened up. What Miller had fought so hard for in 1980 was his for the asking.

Last week, the man who spent 26 years climbing to the rank of governor became Senator Miller. No votes were cast, no costly TV commercials, no barnstorming below the Gnat Line. Miller, now a millionaire and retired from political life, is back in the fray. One more election, this time facing — among others — former Sen. Mack Mattingly who, in 1980, was able to do what Miller couldn't: defeat Herman Talmadge.

There are many reasons, too numerous to enumerate here, why Gov. Roy Barnes and his political operative Bobby Kahn tapped Miller. It was a brilliant stroke to regain a Republican senate seat. Miller is so well-liked that eight GOP congressmen opted not to tangle with him.

But that doesn't mean there won't be a hotly contested debated campaign, or that Miller can sit back and relax.

Already, GOP strategists are hard at work — raising money, plotting ways to recapture the all-important Senate seat and make sure that G.W. Bush's chances of carrying Georgia won't be harmed by Miller. There are issues the GOP hope to hang around Miller's neck and, while few give the GOP the upper hand in defeating Miller, you can expect a dogfight with national implications.

The campaign will be pricey; $10 million or more may be spent. Big-time political consultants like James Carville and Ralph Reed will be engaged. Gore and Bush will make several appearances, although it will be interesting to watch how closely Miller ties himself to Gore. The big questions will center on turnout and which party can rally its base: Miller must energize African-Americans to record numbers at the polls. The GOP has to invigorate Christian conservatives.

The issues could, in many ways, be blurred. Miller has always had the support of the NRA, and he's not for "partial-birth" abortion or a strong advocate of gay rights. Many Democrat activists might be passive in their support for him because of his previous positions. Likewise, expect Miller's unsuccessful efforts to change the Georgia State flag to be on the front burner.

Instead of watching the magnificent autumn foliage from his comfortable stone house in Young Harris this fall, Miller will be airport-hopping, putting on TV makeup and glad-handing for bucks. Twenty years after his hopes for the U.S. Senate were dashed, this time around Miller wants to do it right. This time around he'll do it as an incumbent, with a chance to be permanently remembered as Sen. Zell Miller.

HOUCKLINE: Call, 404-614-1886; e-mail: thouck@mindspring.com

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