Atlanta — He likes to wear cowboy boots, sing country music, and preach ethics in government. He has a big rocking chair in his office in the Georgia capitol. He is also one of the most astute of the new-South breed of politicians.
And he just might topple one of the nation's veteran Southern US senators, Herman Talmadge.
This week, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller came a giant step closer to that goal by forcing Senator Talmadge into the first runoff of his long political career.
Although Mr. Miller got only about 25 percent of the vote, to Senator Talmadge's 40 percent, in a race of four main contenders for the office, their one-to-one faceoff Aug. 26 is expected to be much closer. After the primary miller said, "There's no way in the world" he can lose in the runoff.
If Miller, a former teacher of political science at a college in rural northern Georgia, wins the runoff for the Democratic nomination, it will be an unusual kind of victory.
Miller attracts the support of a loose coalition of moderates, liberals (a small group in Georgia), unionists, blacks, urban voters, and former Talmadge supporters.
One of the latter is Joseph Parham, editor of the independent Macon News. Mr. Parham had grown increasingly disenchanted with Talmadge over the past year, finally turning against him in the wake of the 81-to-15 US Senate vote last fall to "denounce" him for financial irregularities in office. Talmadge has been severely criticized in Macon News editorials on the question of ethics in office ever since.
Miller began his campaign on the Senate ethics issue but has since downplayed it. Yet it may, as he anticipated, be the No. 1 issue in the minds of many Georgia voters. Miller made some inroads into traditional rural Talmadge strongholds in the Aug. 5 primary.
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson is one who thinks ethics is the major issue of the campaign. He and another prominent black leader, Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, are backing Miller.
But Talmadge retains the loyal support of many Georgians who have had problems with the federal government and have turned to him for help. and Miller's image may be a bit too moderate, if not liberal, for some voters.
"We have just begun to fight," the conservative incumbent told his supporters after it became clear he was headed for a runoff with Miller.
The definition of conservative has changed in Georgia, says Tommy Coleman, executive director of the state Democratic Party. The term used to mean one who was anti-civil rights, he says, whereas today it means anti-big government spending -- often including funds for welfare and a variety of other social programs.
Miller told the Monitor recently he is "not that much different" from Talmadge on the issues. But "my emphasis would be different," he added. He said that if elected he would focus more on his area of expertise -- education.
Meanwhile, Republican senatorial candidate Mac Mattingly has had some fund-raising help from Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee. But he faces an uphill fight in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
So if miller wins the nomination, the rest of the nation is likely to see a colorful new personality representing the Peach Tree State -- but little change in the conservative Georgia approach to the issues, even by the updated definition of the term.