- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

Macon, Ga. — Sen. Max Cleland knows he will have to work like Zell to get re-elected.
Which is the reason that the Georgia Democrat surprised even his friends when he announced his 2002 re-election campaign last week —the first incumbent senator to do so — and embarked on a seven-day, 10-city trip through the state during Congress spring break.
His biggest nemesis? Freshman Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a longtime pal and fellow Democrat who appears to be a Republican in donkeys clothing. And the conservative-leaning Mr. Miller — who still has four years left in his term — is a poke in the ribs to the 58-year-old Mr. Cleland these days.
Mr. Miller is being lauded by Republicans for his support of President Bushs $1.6 trillion tax plan. Mr. Cleland voted for the bipartisan Senate compromise plan of $1.2 trillion, which didnt seem to please anyone — liberal Democrats who say it cuts taxes too much and conservative Republicans who insist that the cuts must be larger.
Its enough to make a re-election difference in a conservative state where being a Democrat can be tough sledding. The state elected Mr. Bush last fall and voted for Bob Dole in 1996.
What Mr. Cleland knows is that right now, Senate Republican finance coffers are more than twice as full as those of the Democrats. The 2002 election could decide control of the evenly divided Senate.
Which is why Mr. Cleland sat in an American Legion hall in Columbus, Ga., on Thursday afternoon, boasting of his considerable achievements on veterans affairs and later trying to increase his campaign war chest that currently sits at around $1 million.
The hall itself is a holdover from the 1950s South; whirling ceiling fans cool a fluorescently lit hall of tables, where 45 persons half-fill the place. Local TV is there, and the message is delivered through a tiny public address system.
The mostly male veterans nod their heads as Mr. Cleland, a prominent veteran himself, tells them of his accomplishments.
Following his 25-minute speech, which touches on helth care, tax reform and veterans issues, he meets with a small cadre of local media. He handles the questions deftly in a Washingtonian way; a simple query on policy is answered with a smooth reference to what hes accomplished in the nations capital. It plays well in Columbus.
These are his people: Mr. Cleland, Atlanta-born and raised in a small town, is speaking to a group that has always embraced him. He is a Vietnam veteran, having returned from duty minus two legs and an arm. Mr. Cleland knows veterans are often lost in a maze of conflicting policies and paper shuffling.
Hazel Taylor, who served 26 years in the Army, is an avid Democrat and Mr. Cleland is her man.
"I find myself agreeing with him on everything," she said, clutching a handful of glossy, postcard sized stickers that read: "Take George to the MAX."
In the adjoining Legion bar, George Webster nursed a mug of beer — well, OK, three — while Mr. Cleland made his pitch to the other veterans.
Mr. Webster voted for Mr. Bush, and supports Mr. Miller, saying he is "a good man."
"Well, Cleland will win, but Im sure not going to waste my time trying to ask him questions," said Mr. Webster. After pausing and gulping some beer, he said, "But I really like that Miller."
Mr. Miller was appointed first, then won an election in November to serve the remaining four years of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdales term. Mr. Coverdale died last year while in office.
Mr. Miller, who refused to be interviewed, ingratiated himself with Republicans by first signing on with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas to introduce Mr. Bushs sweeping tax-cut plan.
He then voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general. Mr. Miller also voted to roll back a Clinton-approved plan to address repetitive-stress syndrome.
"[The Republicans] love Zell," notes Mr. Cleland, talking between campaign appearances last week. He sat at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Tifton, chewing on a grilled cheese sandwich and drinking iced tea — sweetened, of course — when he wasnt enthusiastically talking or greeting well-wishers.
With a gleam in his eyes, Mr. Cleland, who is part of a centrist coalition of senators, said, "Republicans will never have a good word to say about me. They want to take me out."
Well, yes.
"Hes vulnerable, his voting record is only 10 percent lower than Ted Kennedys and that doesnt reflect Georgia values," said Linda Hamrick, executive director of the state Republican Party.
Dan Allen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee also said: "He will have to reinvent himself after some of his votes here in Washington. No wonder hes announcing so early."
Mr. Cleland responded with his gentle bluster, "I want to win, so why not start now? Im not this reluctant guest at the party. I want to be the belle of the ball. And anybody not on this schedule is falling behind."
Floyd Ruffin Jr., a former state senator from Milledgeville, and a friend of Mr. Cleland, laughed at the possibility of his pal losing.
"The strategy is like any election, you need organization, you need money and you need to get the vote out," he said.
But, as he waited for the senator to make a quick appearance in Macon on Thursday, Mr. Ruffin almost whispered: "This is just so early."
Mr. Clelands 31-year political career is all about Georgia. Twenty-seven years in state politics, capped with the past four in Congress.
The son of a traveling salesman father and a secretary mother, Mr. Cleland came home from the Vietnam War to Lithonia, Ga., where "I had no job offers, no car, no future, and the phone wasnt ringing," he recalled.
But he could talk, and he could do it well. The emotional testimony he gave before the Veterans Affairs Committee upon his return detailed some of the trouble veterans were having with postwar medical care.
It earned him hometown points big time; the next year, 1970, he was elected to the state Senate.
In 1982, he was elected as secretary of state. In 1995, he resigned his post to run for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sam Nunn.
Georgia still loved him. Mr. Cleland went to Washington, where the bachelor senator has become a revered figure among his peers.
Hes set on staying, and ready to square off with anyone who says hes not a true Georgia Democrat.
"Listen," he said, finishing his cheese sandwich before heading off to another campaign event, this one at a home on a dirt road in the Georgia woods. "This is my 31st year in Georgia politics. Ive been the sweet potato king. Ive been to every nook and cranny of this state. And I dont want to be outspent."
Then comes his inadvertent punch line: "The only person who has run more statewide is … Zell Miller."

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