Atlanta — At first glance, a US senator "denounced" by his colleagues for financial irregularities would seem easy pickings at the next election. But challengers of Sen. Herman Talmadge (D) of Georgia are finding that toppling a political legend here in the South is no easy task. The Talmadge name has been dominant in Georgia politics for decades. The senator's father, Eugene, was elected governor four times in the 1930s and '40s. Herman Talmadge himself was governor for six years before entering the Senate.
In addition to confronting such a political legacy, his leading challenger, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, may actually have been damaged by endorsements that probably would be welcome in another area: those of the black mayor of Atlanta, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and the AFL-CIO. Georgia is still basically conservative and anti-union.
Thus, the results of the Aug. 5 Georgia Democratic primary will tell something of the state of Southern politics today.
Voters in the South do not take kindly to a politician being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But neither do they like someone picking on their politicians -- as Senator Talmadge contends the Atlanta newspapers have in his case.
"Those two things strike a balance, and there's no way of telling which way it will tilt," says one veteran journalist here.
Talmadge has been a senator for nearly 24 years. One by one during that time , most of the other veteran Southern senators have left the political scene.
But Talmadge has faced little tough opposition until now. He began his political career with racist appeals, but gradually dropped them. Today he courts black votes.
In the past few years he has had some harsh experiences: a bitter divorce, a fight against alcoholism; and the denunciation by the Senate last October by a vote of 81 to 15.
The denunciation came for having failed to repay $43,000 in Senate funds obtained by bogus expense vouchers and for filing inaccurate personal financial-disclosure statements. The Senate also said he failed to fully report campaign expenses and kept a secret bank account for some campaign funds.
The US Justice Department, however, recently found no grounds for criminal prosecution in the Talmadge case.
Still, Lieutenant Governor Miller maintains, "There's a whole lot of difference between breaking the letter of the law and the public trust."
Mr. Miller criticizes the senator for making more than $600,000 in gross profits from the sale of land for part of an interstate highway. He suggests that the land purchase and sale -- which came about five years apart -- were improper for a US senator and appear the result of more than just "luck."
Talmadge press secretary Gordon Roberts counters that the Senate found no evidence of the senator trying to influence the government's purchase of the land.
Miller also suggests that Talmadge gets too many donations from the oil industry.
On the issues, Miller says he is "not that much different" from Talmadge.
But a close Miller aide concedes that the lieutenant governor is "unpredictable" on issues. "If it weren't for the ethics issue, the Georgia electorate would go for the known [Talmadge]," this aide says.
Two other challengers, meanwhile, attempt to draw some differences between themselves and the senator on the issues.
US Rep. Dawson Mathis, from a rural district in the southwestern part of the state, says he is more conservative than Talmadge -- a contention backed up by the ratings of various conservative groups.
The other challenger, former state appeals court judge Norman Underwood, says he could beat Talmadge in a runoff by drawing more of the vote from the "middle range" of the electorate. He says his main financial backing comes from business and professional interests.
Mr. Mathis and Mr. Underwood criticize Talmadge's record as chairman fo the Senate Agriculture Committee. But neither cites many specifics or offers many alternatives.
By most estimates, Miller has the best chance among the challengers of getting into a runoff with Talmadge in November. But Atlanta pollster Clairbourne Darden thinks Miller has the least chance of the four candidates of winning a runoff. He cites Miller's backing by NOW, by labor, and by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson as handicaps.
"Zell had it in his hand, but never knew it," says Mr. Darden, citing his poll last fall showing Miller beating Talmadge by 17 percentage points in a two-man race.