Rising again, like his Old South Sen. Herman Eugene Talmadge, 67, today shook off the heavy political baggage of a bitter divorce, a drinking problem and a Senate denunciation for financial misconduct to win the first primary runoff of his virtually unchallenged political career. t
"I think I'll be on the payroll another six years," the four-term Democrat said tonight after Georgia voters delivered bittersweet vindication to their crusty, cigar-chomping senator.
"He's been washed in the blood of the Lamb," said a longtime friend.
Talmadge defeated Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, 48, who made the senator's ethics the issue. But in the end, Georgia voters apparently considered Talmadge's conservative ideology and more than two decades of constituent services more important than any so called Washington shenanigans.
With 92 percent of the precincts counted, Talmadge had 58 percent of the vote. The tally: Talmadge, 512,180; Miller, 364,651.
At Miller's election-night headquarters here, a country band tried to perk up the spirits of campaign volunteers as Miller conceded defeat.
"I've been involved in many winning campaigns and many winning elections, but I've never been involved in any winning election in which I was more proud that I am in this losing election," Miller said.
Talmadge rode the elevator down from his Hilton suite and paraded into the hotel's ornate ballroom to thank jubilant supporters.
"Round No. 1 is over; it looks like Round No. 2 is approaching a climax," he shouted. "Get ready for Round No. 3 -- on to November and on to Washington!"
Talmadge will face Republican Mack Mattingly, a St. Simons Island businessman, in the Nov. 4 general election.
Secretary of State David Poythress said an estimated 40 percent of the state's 2.2 million registered voters turned out today in an unpredictable pattern his press secretary described as "schizophrenic."
Miller needed 80 percent of the 350,000 votes that were scattered among four other challengers in the Aug. 5 primary to beat the incumbent senator. He also hoped for a high turnout of black voters.
In urban Fulton County, where Miller led in the first primary, the turnout was slightly ahead of the primary pace. And an apparent increase in black voting around Atlanta bolstered the challenger's hopes. Miller won about 70 percent of the black vote last time, when only 25 percent of black voters turned out.
A handful of county election officials said their turnouts rivaled those of Aug. 5, and among these were officials in Talmadge's native Telfair County. In a disputed 1946 governor's race, Telfair County awarded Talmadge an infamous "second box" of votes that included voters who had died long before election day. This year, Telfair took four days to report its vote totals after the Aug. 5 primary. It went heavily for Talmadge.
Talmadge -- seventh-ranking senator and chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee -- is the scion of a political dynasty that dates back half a century to his gallus-thumping, race-baiting governor-daddy, "Ol' Gene." He fought his way into the runoff with 42 percent of the vote. Miller won 25 percent.
Many Georgians theorize that Talmadge yanked his slick, $500,000 TV ads off the air in the final weeks before the runoff so as not the rile anti-Talmadge voters and remind them to return to the polls -- a "let sleeping dogs lie" strategy.
Instead, his large volunteer army, funded by a $1.4 million campaign war chest, relied on an elaborate phone bank to get out the vote today.
Miller spent $350,000.
Talmadge counted on his seniority, constituent services and traditional support in the rural outback -- farmers, blue-collar workers, small buinessmen -- to add six years to his 24-year Senate career and reward him with a fifth term. In a spirited, sometimes nasty campaign, Talmadge tried to paint Miller -- a fire-spouting populist who enjoys the support of labor, blacks and other less-than-conservative Georgians -- as a free-spending liberal, federalist and ideological kin to Teddy Kennedy.
Miller, who adopted the campaign slogan, "The best senator money can't buy," made Talmadge's integrity the main issue, reminding voters how he had "disgraced" Georgia with a Senate denunciation for financial misconduct in the handling of office expenses.
Talmadge labeled Millers, Tactics "mud, slime and muck," and in a Monday press conference railed at the Atlanta newspapers for "working for him night and day."
Said Miller: "I haven't slung mud, I've slung truth, and it splattered all over the state."