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The Republican Convention

Democrat to Appeal to Swing Voters

September 01, 2004|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The speech Sen. Zell Miller delivers tonight will be the first time a Democrat has delivered the Republicans' keynote address. It will also be the political swan song for the 72-year-old former governor of Georgia.

Miller, an old-fashioned Southern Democrat, was reared in an Appalachian hollow where it was said that a yellow dog could get elected sooner than a Republican. He was a strong supporter of President Clinton and delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 1992.

But since he entered the Senate in 2000, he has racked up a voting record more conservative than many of his Republican colleagues. He insists that he hasn't moved away from the Democratic Party -- the party has moved away from him.

"I never dreamed that the party was as far left as it is until I went to Washington," Miller said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show.

Miller's job at the convention is to further the party's appeal to independents and swing voters, and he will deliver a speech explaining why he believes Democrats should vote for President Bush. He is also expected to fire barbs in the direction of the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry.

"I have specific worries about John Kerry. I have specific worries about his domestic policy. His domestic policy is, it seems to me, tax, spend, redistribute income," Miller told NBC. "Kerry thinks that if you rob Peter to pay Paul, Paul will vote for you. That's not where I come from. I think that you ought to leave that money in the people's pockets back home where they earned it so that they can do what they want to do with it, not send it to Washington where it's going to be gobbled up."

Not surprisingly, many Democrats see him as a traitor and have resurrected an epithet from his earlier career in Georgia: ZigZag Zell.

"Miller talks like a Republican, he votes like a Republican, he is a Republican. So let's end the charade," said Eric Carbone, founder of Zellout.com, a website encouraging Miller to leave the Democratic Party. "Miller's masquerade as a Democrat is an insult to every Democrat."

Few would have predicted this final chapter in Miller's political life.

After serving in the Marines, Miller was elected mayor of his hometown, Young Harris, in northern Georgia. At 28, he was elected to the state Senate. He went on to serve as lieutenant governor for 16 years and governor for eight, from 1991 to 1999. Among other accomplishments, he instituted a state lottery, which has helped fund college educations for millions.

"He's easily the most popular statewide politician in Georgia today," said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

Miller was enjoying retirement in July 2000 when Sen. Paul Coverdell died and he was asked to step in, winning a special election.

Black said that even as Miller came out of retirement, he had already made a mental break with the Democratic Party.

"He said, 'I'm not going to do the partisan thing,' even though he'd done the partisan thing his whole life," Black said. "When he went into the Senate, I think he'd already ... saw himself as a bipartisan senator."

Miller and Bush met as governors, and the president-elect invited him to an education summit in Austin, Texas, during the transition. A few months later, in 2001, Miller volunteered to be the Democratic co-sponsor of President Bush's first tax-cut bill. And since the Sept. 11 attacks, Miller has been a strong proponent of the president's war on terrorism.

Miller says the folks in Young Harris feel the same way he does -- that even if you're a Democrat, you should support the president's economic and national security policies.

Last year, Miller announced that he would not seek reelection. That has freed him to speak his mind, boldly, to both parties.

"I haven't got long," Miller said a few months ago. "I have to use strong words, or whatever it is, to get my point across. I'm going to be gone, I'm going to be history, in just a few months."

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