After mauling Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in his keynote speech at the Republican convention Wednesday night, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) was roaming Madison Square Garden like a rabid dog looking for someone else to bite when MSNBC's Chris Matthews got in his way.

But because Matthews wasn't physically in the Garden -- the "Hardball" host is anchoring MSNBC's prime-time coverage from nearby Herald Square -- the wild-eyed Dixiecrat wound up snarling at him via remote hookup, and reminiscing wistfully about the good old days when he might have challenged a cur like Matthews to a duel.

It all started around 11:15 p.m. Wednesday when Matthews was interviewing Miller, as previously arranged, about his keynote speech, otherwise known as 20 minutes of tossing raw meat to piranhas.

Specifically, Matthews was trying to discuss Miller's charge that Kerry had tried to shut down so many weapons systems as a senator that had he prevailed, U.S. forces would be armed with only "spitballs."

"When Democrats come out, as they often do," Matthews began, "liberal Democrats, and attack conservatives, and say [conservatives] want to starve little kids, they want to get rid of education, they want to kill the old people . . ."

"I am not saying that. Wait a minute!" Miller roared.

"Now, this is your program. And I am a guest on your program," the senator continued, outraged.

"Yes, sir," responded Matthews. He is definitely in kinder-gentler mode since his new executive producer Tammy Haddad came on board in January. While mostly that's good and has gained Matthews respect and ratings, sometimes it seems a pity.

"I wish I was over there, where I could get a little closer up into your face!" Miller continued.

"But I don't have to stand here and listen to that kind of stuff. I didn't say anything about not feeding poor kids. What are you doing?"

"I'm not saying that," Matthews answered, while, we're just guessing, restraining the urge to rip off the monitor on which he was seeing Miller and stomp on it. "When you said tonight -- I just want you to . . ."

"Well, you are saying a bunch of baloney that didn't have anything to do with what I said up there on the [stage]," Miller growled.

Matthews, trying to get the interview back on track, asked Miller if, as he said during his speech, he really believes Kerry intends to defend the country with "spitballs" rather than bombers and such.

"That was a metaphor, wasn't it?" Miller sneered, adding, "Do you know what a metaphor is?"

Matthews, still kinder-gentler, tried to explain to Miller, slowly, that in this thing known as an interview, what he, Chris Matthews, was doing was going over Miller's talking points from his speech to the GOP convention, and asking him if he really believed those talking points.

"I think we ought to cancel this interview," Miller barked.

"That would be my loss, Senator, that would be my loss," said Matthews. Even his hair looked kinder and gentler that night.

Matthews turned the discussion to the line in the speech in which Miller said that the soldier, not the reporter, has given us freedom of the press.

"Do you believe that?" Miller said.

"Well, of course. It's true," Matthews said.

"Do you believe that?" said Miller again, having decided the question could not be asked too often.

Matthews ignored the second question and instead noted that nobody would have challenged the statement about reporters and soldiers and the First Amendment, adding, "What was your point?"

"Well, it evidently got a rise out of you!" snapped Miller.

"Well, I think it's a . . ."

"Because you are a reporter," Miller continued. "You didn't have anything to do with freedom of the press."

Miller can make "reporter" sound like a very dirty word. Wonder how the families of NBC's David Bloom and Atlantic Monthly's Michael Kelly feel about that and about Miller's comments?

By now, Miller had worked himself up into quite a heat, pronouncing Matthews "hopeless" and, not long after, saying, "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel. Now, that would be pretty good."

By this time, Chris "Pit Bull" Matthews had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of his kinder-gentler self. But we're mixing our metaphors. Do you know what a metaphor is?

Anyway, he started doing what Matthews does best, asking questions and then talking over his guest when they blather or bob and weave, until he exhausts them and goes in for the kill. It's like watching a National Geographic special. Though we have to admit, Miller put up a good fight:

"Don't pull that kind of stuff on me, like you did that young lady when you had her there, browbeating her to death. I am not her. . . . You get in my face, I am going to get back in your face," Miller said, adding a minute later, "I don't know why I even came on this program."

The "lady" Miller was referring to was syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, author of "In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror." She was on "Hardball" in mid-August to talk about the attack ads against Kerry that star a group of Vietnam veterans. When Malkin asked, "Why don't people ask [Kerry] more specific questions about the shrapnel in his leg? There are legitimate questions about whether or not it was a self-inflicted wound," Matthews had also tossed off the kinder-gentler mantle and pounced, asking often and loudly, "Are you saying he shot himself on purpose? Is that what you're saying?" while she bobbed and wove with lines like "Did you read the book?" and "I'm saying some of these soldiers . . ." Matthews cut her off each time, informing her that no one has ever accused Kerry of shooting himself on purpose and demanding she answer his question, yes or no.

After polishing her off, Matthews had turned to the camera and addressed viewers directly: "We are going to keep things clean on this show. No irresponsible comments are going to be made on the show."

Back to the Miller interview, which was pretty much downhill from there. Occasionally, Miller's eyes would get narrow and squinty after Matthews asked him a question, and he'd shout, "Are you going to shut up after you ask me?" But really, he'd exhausted himself.

At the end, Matthews tried to recover the kinder-gentler bit, saying sweetly: "I feel bad that you are upset with me, Senator. I have never had this kind of a fight with you before," and inviting him back the next night.

"By the way," Matthews couldn't resist adding, "you will help our ratings tremendously if you come over tomorrow night, because everybody thinks you are going to beat me up."

Yesterday morning we asked Matthews what would be his weapon of choice in a duel with Miller.

"Oh, I don't know -- brains?" he responded.

Good thing they weren't in the same studio: "Hardball's" Chris Matthews, who probably does know what a metaphor is, found himself in the path of a sneering, sniping Sen. Zell Miller.