NEW YORK, Sept. 2 -- Sen. Zell Miller, apostate Democrat from Georgia, was the talk of the town here among (mostly) adoring delegates at the Republican National Convention on Thursday.
He was the talk of many other towns, too, as his fulminating keynote address from the night before continued to echo -- with uncertain political consequences -- across television news, talk radio, David Letterman's show and countless "Did you see that guy?" conversations in car pools and on coffee breaks.
In an age when many voters tune out conventions, it can be hard for any politician to break through and capture public attention. But Miller broke through with a vengeance, with his angry attack challenging the national security record of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and the patriotism of Democrats with a "manic obsession to bring down" President Bush.
By Thursday, it was clear that his broadside -- combined with bizarre post-speech TV appearances in which he told one interviewer he wished he could challenge him to a duel -- had overshadowed Vice President Cheney's more sober speech critiquing Kerry on the same themes. It was equally clear that Miller's thrusts had drawn blood. But it was not clear whether the blood was Kerry's or Miller's own.
Democrats said they were certain the senator had crossed the line and would hurt Bush, in much the same way that commentator Pat Buchanan's fiery 1992 convention speech frightened independent voters. Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards at a campaign rally called the speech "venom." Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) warned in an interview that " 'angry' doesn't sell well in my neck of the woods."
Privately, some senior Republicans agreed that red meat that tasted delicious in the convention hall did not look appetizing to independent voters watching on television. "Everyone read the speech in advance and approved it," said one prominent GOP lobbyist working closely with the Bush-Cheney campaign on the staging and message for the convention. The problem, he added, was that handlers did not account for the shouting voice or glowering stare with which the 72-year-old former Marine delivered his speech, or the short-tempered manner he displayed in interviews once the veracity of his charges began being challenged minutes after he left the podium. The scrutiny continued Thursday.
First lady Laura Bush, in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, responded coolly when asked whether she and the president agreed with what Miller said. "I don't know that we share that point of view," she said, adding that Miller has a "very interesting viewpoint" as a Democrat who disagrees with Kerry.
Despite signs of GOP ambivalence, a focus group conducted with 17 independent voters in Ohio by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for MSNBC drew a mostly positive response. These voters, Luntz said, did not care for Miller's attacks on the Democratic Party because they were too "broad-brush," but the attacks on Kerry resonated because Miller anchored his criticism in specific arguments about Kerry's record.
"They liked facts," Luntz said. "They're not responding to style. They're asking for a level of detail."
The group, in which voters turned dials to register reaction to each line of the speech, thought the most "memorable" passage of Miller's speech was his recitation of weapons systems Kerry supposedly voted against, then asked how such a man could lead the armed forces. "U.S. forces armed with what?" Miller asked. "Spitballs?"
Kerry's campaign called this passage, and several others, grossly misleading. Kerry questioned weapons systems that Cheney, then defense secretary, also wanted to trim at the end of the Cold War.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett, citing Luntz's finding and his own impressions, said in an interview that the Miller speech seemed to be effective. He said the comparison to Buchanan is misplaced, since the commentator was declaring a "culture war" when speaking to his own party, while Miller was crossing party lines to back a president in wartime.
Even so, Bartlett acknowledged that it was too soon to tell the political impact. "Look, we're all assuming . . . we're experts and we know how the public's going to react to this," he said. "We don't know."
One factor in the reaction was how much the speech is played, replayed and commented on in the days ahead. Another intemperate political speech -- former Vermont governor Howard Dean's roaring statement after he lost the Iowa caucuses in January -- grew in significance for several days as it echoed through the media.
Miller's speech has entered the national conversation in a similar way, said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, which monitors popular culture with an emphasis on talk radio. "It got a lot of attention from all angles because it was refreshingly unexpected and refreshingly out of control," he said. Unfortunately for Republicans, he added, it seemed as though their keynote speaker was "drunk or on drugs."
Democrats in Miller's home state likewise suggested that their one-time hero has become non compos mentis. In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia AFL-CIO President Richard A. Ray was quoted as saying: "Why do I want to be polite here? He's lost his damn mind."
Chuck Byrd, a lawyer and conservative Democrat from rural middle Georgia, said: "I know of no reasonable explanation for it other than people who have known Zell Miller for a long time are concerned about him now."
Doug Schoen, a pollster for President Bill Clinton, said the Miller speech was effective, since "it is keeping the focus on Kerry" and is preventing the nominee from changing the subject to more promising topics, such as his agenda or his critique of Bush. "If this election is a debate about John Kerry" and his war service or national security record, Schoen said, "he's not going to win."
Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Oregon, said that despite negative commentary from the "chattering class," he suspects the speech "may have connected with middle-American voters who are concerned about security." Even so, he believes the novelty of a Democratic endorsement of Bush would have been more effective if delivered with a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone, and he cautioned that any impact in either direction will be short-lived: "I don't think in a week it's going to matter diddly."
Staff writer Dale Russakoff contributed to this report.