Like two snarling pit bulls, they tore into each other in four TV debates aired here this week, with Sen. Herman E. Talmadge leaning heavily on Jesus while his opponent, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, preached about how Talmadge had disgraced Georgia.
With three days left before the Georgia primary runoff -- the first runoff Talmadge has faced in his 23-year Senate career -- the contest has become increasingly personal and bitter.
Talmadge, 67, dauphin to a 50-year political dynasty and powerful chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, puts his hopes for political resurrection in the hands of red clay recipients of the constituent services he has religiously performed for more than two decades in Washington.
Services such as the red tape he cut for the son of Dell Keeble, 58, a LaGrange, Ga., restaurant owner who nowadays dishes up an extra scoop of Herman Talmadge with every helping of collards and black-eyed peas. Talmadge interceded to make sure the government paid up in a stalled, three-year disability claim resulting from a car wreck her son suffered on his job with the Navy. It left him brain-damaged and saddled with $25,000 in medical bills.
"I've always voted for Talmadge before, but now I've got a personal reason," Keeble said. "My boy is supposed to be dead now, but God left him with me, and Herman Talmadge is going to see that he's taken care of."
On Tuesday, voters will choose between Talmadge, 67 -- their four-term patron, seventh-ranking U.S. senator, fifth-ranking Senate Democrat and vice chairman of the Finance Committee -- and Miller, a fire-spouting populist who enjoys the support of blacks, labor and liberal Georgians.
Miller has made Talmadge's Senate denunciation for financial misconduct and the "disgrace" it has brought to the state the major issue in the campaign. In a six-man primary Aug. 5, he captured 25 percent of the vote to Talmadge's 42 percent. The senator has emphasized his years of "service," counting on Talmadge devotees across the state to take up the cry.
"I just go from table to table and tell 'em my story and customers say, 'You've got my vote, Dell,'" Keeble said.
Talmadge derives his senority and power over budgetary billions, awesome clout in the Washington power game, from his care in solving the seemingly little problems of his people back home -- a lost Social Security check, a Medicare claim gone awry, a farmer's rejection for some agriculture subsidy, a homesick soldier who wants to be stationed at a military base closer to home, the hounding of a factory owner by an overzealous federal inspector. Often, all it takes is a call from a Talmadge aide barking the senator's name at some pokey bureaucrat.
But, in his own back yard, where Talmadge is fighting to save his political life, the good works are considered modern-day miracles by voters who rarely forget. Campaign strategists say the deeds largely account for his support, in spite of the spotlight opponents have shined on his financial troubles, his bitter divorce, his drinking problem.
"He must have a half-million IOUs out there," said Jimmy Bentley, 53, an Albany insurance man, former state comptroller and executive secretary to Talmadge when he was governor. "He gets 250,000 letters a year from people asking for help. Must be 50,000 families in this state, four and five generations, who vote for him because they've been helped in some way or know a neighbor who has. That's the kind of depth and strength Talmadge has built in this state."
Stop a stranger on the street and, chances are, you'll get a story of senatorial good works. Atlanta construction executive James Shepherd, 29, credits Talmadge with saving his life after he broke his neck surfing off the coast of Brazil. Doctors said he would die unless carefully moved to the States. Commercial airlines wouldn't touch him. A call from Talmadge brought an Air Force C141 Medevac plane winging to Rio de Janeiro, a $40,000 flight for which the Shepherd family reimbursed the government.
"That's the kind of power seniority gives you," reflects the once-paralyzed Shepherd, who now walks about with the help of a cane. "If he hadn't done such a good job over the years for his people, he wouldn't have that power now. sYou have to respect him for that."
Journalists also have sought his help in a pinch. James Townsend, an Atlanta magazine editor, once telephoned Talmadge's Senate office mid-air over Bermuda when military authorities refused to allow his Lear jet to land for lack of prior clearance. Within minutes of the call, Townsend laughs, the clouds parted and "they said, 'Let that boy land.'"
"By God, that's more than service. That's POWER!"
Talmadge moved across the state last week, sweating through a white shirt and chomping hard on an El Cavellero cigar as he reminded voters like Keeble of their benefactor.
Talmadge dangled carrots before local officials, who weren't bashful about seeking his help. As mailboxes on a country road became a blur from the speeding car, a Carrolton utility official nodded toward them and said, "Senator, I got a problem with the Postal Service. They want the boxes on the same side of the road. But our people want them on the same side as their house. I'd like 'em changed."
"Got a pencil?" Talmadge asked, as the man jotted down the name of the senator's administrative assistant in Washington. Constituent, thy will be done.
But his chief critic, Miller, scoffs at "the myth of constituent service. Georgia voters know it's mainly because of his staff. He's got 75 people working for him up there, the second largest staff in the Senate, the third most expensive. The average voter may write him and get some help. But they know it was done by his staff. They know his letters are signed by an automatic pen.
"I'd have an able staff, too, but I'd vote right, and I wouldn't line my pockets."
On the other hand, "there's got to be some reason people are for him," conceded Miller, who has adopted the slogan, "the best senator money can't buy." He has been trying to sabotage Talmadge's strategy, which emphasizes seniority and service, with a question he repeats like a mantra at every stop: "Did this man misuse his office and bring disgrace on this state?"
He also likes to remind blacks of Talmadge's history as an arch segregationist. And he charges that the senator's habit of mentioning to audiences that Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and state Sen. Julian Bond stand among Miller's chief backers amounts to a "subtle racial campaign."
The Atlanta Constitution, perceived in the rural outback as kin to the Communist Manifesto, has also been lashing out at Talmadge on the stump. The senator's eyes twinkle as he affects outrage that one columinist has been quoted as saying, "If there was a choice between Herman Talmadge and a hound dog, we'd back the dog."
But Talmadge's good deeds, touted through a massive ad campaign and seconded by a few black business leaders and a prominent preacher or two, appear to have offset a mass disaffection by the state's black voters, who number 26 percent of Georgia's 2.4 million registered voters. Talmadge won about 30 percent of the black vote statewide in the primary.
While talmadge bows and scrapes for forgiveness for his old "seg" days before black audiences, he is not averse to courting whites who harbor racist sentiments. On a radio call-in show in Carrolton, a small town 50 miles south of Atlanta, he skillfully dodged a question about a Senate resolution that would declare Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
"It hasn't come up for a vote yet," Talmadge said, signing off.
The man called back, dissatisfied. "We don't need a federal holiday named after some agitator. Let's name one after Robert E. Lee," he groused, demanding to know how Talmadge would vote when it did come up for a Senate vote.
"I'm committed to vote for it," Talmadge responded tersely. But, he added, "so is Zell Miller."
Later in the car, Talmadge grinned. "I don't believe in over-answering. Might have been a J. B. Stoner [the avowed racist candidate who lost] man trying to figure out how to vote. Maybe he'll pick the lesser of two evils."
"Thirteen out of 14 calls were for you, Senator, everyone except the one who asked about Martin Luther King," a campaign volunteer reported.
One man told Talmadge that he was the only politician to send a condolence card when his son died. "I'll never forget that," the man promised.
"I lost a son, too," said Talmadge, whose youngest son, Robert, drowned several years back. "I know exactly how you feel."
And, hardly missing a beat, Talmadge reminded listeners how he is ready to come to the rescue whenever "people feel helpless and hopeless, to help them cut government red tape."
Many Talmadge supporters blame his troubles on his former wife, Betty, who learned of her husband's decision to divorce her on the TV news. She testified before the Senate Ethnics Committee that Talmade kept thousands of dollars in an overcoat. Their property settlement fight, a nasty dispute over who owned $750,000 in stock, was settled in his favor by a jury in Lovejoy, Talmadge's home town.
"He never had any trouble until he decided to divorce his old lady," said Talmadge man Clyde Helton, a $7.75-an-hour machine operator at Mead Packaging in Atlanta. "Then everybody and his brother started jumping on him, turning over every rock."
"His wife tried to do him a dirty deal," echoed Helton's wife, Christine, who also works at the plant where Talmadge pumped hands last week during a shift change. "And you know how us women are when we get mad -- we get even." s
"The last few years of my life have been particularly traumatic," Talmadge drawled in a masterful TV ad that has attempted to convert controversy into sympathy. "An unfortunate divorce, the death of my youngest son, and the most trusted aide I had turned out to be an embezzler . . . My personal world was falling apart . . . So I took my mistakes to my Maker and found forgiveness."
All Talmadge needs to win is one out of every four votes that went to former state appeals court judge Norman Underwood and Rep. Dawson Mathis, the third- and fourth-place finishers in the Aug. 6 primary. Together Underwood and Mathis pulled a sizable chunk (33 percent of the primary vote) of young people and middle-class conservatives away from Talmadge.
Regena Burleson, a food company secretary, was among dozens of Underwood supporters interviewed by The Washington Post who said they would vote for the senator, "even though he proved he was a crook. He's done a lot for his people and a lot for himself, but he's still a good senator." She says she is shying away from Miller because of his "union backing." Come the general election in the fall, she plans to vote for the Republican, Mack Mattingly, she said.
Underwood campaign manager Bobby Rowan, 44, a farmer and ex-state senator from Enigma, Ga., views the looming political shootout as "Star Wars" over Georgia, with Talmadge as big bad Darth Vadar and Miller as cherubic Luke Skywalker. "The Senate race is sort of good against evil, only the good guy [Miller] is out of step with Georgia."
Miller is a fiscal conservative with strong sentiments for helping blacks, the elderly and the poor. He strikes the same kind of fear in many Georgia conservatives as an Edward M. Kennedy, or a George McGovern, who, Talmadge notes, would ascend to head the Agriculture Committee should he lose.
"I'm not convinced Herman will beat Zell," Rowan said. "But if he does it will be the last gasp of Old South politics."
Perhaps. But, there is ample evidence that the Talmadge gospel, handed down from one generation to another like some treasured antique, still strikes a sympathetic chord among Georgia's youth vote.
At a Columbus cocktail party, about 150 sons and daughters of the ruling class -- doctors and lawyers, young businessmen and college students -- donned Weejuns and alligator shirts, madras jackets and cocktail dresses to meet the man their parents had anointed senator.
Rem Houser, 26, a local bank public relations man, graduate of the University of Georgia and former Underwood supporter, organized the affair. He admitted to misgivings about Talmadge's financial misconduct, but he said, "Do you think a good man should be banished for one thing? I don't, and neither do a lot of young people in this room."
They gingerly approached the grandfatherly old man in the gray pin-striped suit with all the deference southern manners teach its young. Most had grown up while Talmadge worked his political wonders from Washington, but they knew about him and his race-baiting, gallus-thumping daddy, Ol' Gene, from the history books. Although there was the chasm of polite discomfort that separates generations. Talmadge worked the room hard for votes. Then he made the pitch:
"My doors will always be open. I'm as close as the phone or the mailbox. Call on me. Help me."