Georgia runoff: why Talmadge won an election he could have lost

Ethics alone were not enough of an issue to deny one of the nation's veteran US senators, Herman Talmadge, his party's nomination for a fifth term. Georgia Democratic voters -- by a 58-to-42 percent margin in an Aug. 26 runoff -- have backed Senator Talmadge for re-election despite his formal denouncement by the Senate last year for financial irregularities.

"I'm very humble and very proud," Senator Talmadge said after winning. He attributed the vote to "the fairness of the people of Georgia."

His embittered opponent, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, said he would "rather be right than senator" and added that he would not vote for Talmadge in november.

But Talmadge's victory:

* Does not mean politics is chugging along as usual in this state.

* Offers the rest of the nation a casebook on how a political legend in his own time, such as Talmadge, might have been defeated.

Talmadge was, by all accounts here, vulnerable. He entered the primary campaign having faced not only the Senate action, but also a bitter divorce and a bout with alcoholism.

He was forced into the first runoff of his long political career in Georgia. But his runoff victory by such a comfortable margin shows that his weaknesses were not effectively exploited.

Now Talmadge faces only one more obstacle in his fight for a fifth term: a little-known Republican businessman named Mack Mattingly. Mr. Mattingly will try to do what Lieutenant Governor Miller failed to accomplish in the runoff: tap the apparently large anti-Talmadge sentiment in this state.

However, although Georgians frequently vote for a GOP presidential candidate, they are not known for backing Republicans for the US Senate. The state is predominantly Democratic.

In the Democratic primary earlier this month, the vote was about 40 percent for Talmadge and 25 percent for Miller, with two other principal contenders splitting most of the balance.

Miller based his appeal before and after the primary almost entirely on the ethics issue. That effort fizzled.

The public, says state Sen. Frank Eldridge Jr. (D), felt Talmadge had done nothing more than "a lot of other people who never got caught."

Moreover, the ethics issue is not a major one in Georgia's sizable black community -- even among the black clergy -- says Dr. Robert H. Brisbane, chairman of the political science department of predominantly black Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Many older blacks backed Talmadge, says Dr. Brisbane, seeing him as "a former racist who has seen the light [and] the best friend in Washington for getting things done."

Meanwhile, Talmadge's campaign -- apparently successfully -- tagged Miller as a liberal, although he is not one on most issues. It was an ironic effort, says one well-informed Democratic official, since "Talmadge is not as conservative as you might think."

This official, who asked not to be named, adds that he thinks Miller's high-profile use of two prominent black supporters -- Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and state Sen. Julian Bond -- probably hurt him with potential voters.

But the most devasting blow to Miller's campaign appears to have been in failure -- or perhaps inability -- to delegate responsibility. He established no real grassroots organization. He never gave key potential financial backers clear authority to work for him. He acted as his own organizer, researcher, fund-raiser, and even press director.

"There's just so cotton-pickin' much a man can do in 24 hours," laments a close Miller associate. "He just can't delegate."

A series of televised debates between Miller and Talmadge, which deteriorated into name-calling and bickering, did little to clarify issues.

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