WEST ALLIS, Wis. — President Bush, ignoring press derision of Zell Miller, yesterday began invoking him on the campaign trail, which brought raucous applause from voters who share the fiery Georgian’s opposition to fellow Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
“Zell Miller of Georgia, he’s a discerning Democrat,” Mr. Bush told a rally in Moosic, Pa., his first stop after accepting the party’s nomination Thursday. The audience of 8,000 exploded in cheers.
The reaction was even more dramatic at the president’s next stop here, where the crowd of 20,000 made more noise than any other gathering the president has addressed during the campaign. One of those cheering the loudest was Brian Lunde, national co-chairman of Democrats for Bush.
“You know, Brian and Zell Miller, they’re on to something,” Mr. Bush said. “There’s a lot of discerning Democrats who understand that four more years will make this country safer, stronger and better.
“And this campaign welcomes all Democrats and independents,” he added. “Our vision includes everybody. Our message is for every single citizen in this country.”
Mr. Miller electrified the convention on Wednesday by delivering an impassioned endorsement of Mr. Bush and an attack on Mr. Kerry that Democrats and the press called overly strident.
“I pick up the New York Times this morning and read that it was ‘bizarre,’” Mr. Miller marveled in an interview. “The media is way out of touch on this; they’re out on the extreme left with John Kerry.”
During the convention, Mr. Miller criticized Mr. Kerry for voting against defense spending and suggested he would defend America with “spitballs.” Watching the performance at Madison Square Garden, one journalist turned to another and described Mr. Miller as a “cracker gone crazy.”
“Oh, I’ve heard that,” Mr. Miller said yesterday. “I’ve also heard from another media outlet that I was supposedly drunk or on drugs.
“But when I walked around the convention hall after my speech and even later, when I was in restaurants and other places in New York ordinary people came up to me and the response was extremely positive,” he added.
Mr. Miller’s press secretary, Sheridan Watson, said the senator’s office received 2,000 phone calls after his speech, two-thirds of which were supportive. There also were 15,500 e-mail messages, 60 percent of which favored the senator.
Supporters praised Mr. Miller’s spunk, with one claiming to have enjoyed “the best sleep of my life after that speech.” Detractors expressed embarrassment for Mr. Miller, with one saying he “needs anger-management classes.”
Democrats have branded the speech a “rant” that will alienate swing voters.
“Senator Miller’s wild-eyed, vicious attack on Senator Kerry’s patriotism has already backfired and has turned off scores of women, moderate and independent voters of all walks of life,” said Anne Lewis, deputy director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But yesterday, Mr. Miller predicted just the opposite.
“In Georgia and the rest of the South, there’s a very, very large number of Democrats who are voting for President Bush,” he said. “They believe he’s right on the family values issues and on taking the war to the terrorists.”
Mr. Miller said the number of pro-Bush Democrats will grow as they learn more about Mr. Kerry, whom he called a “quote-unquote war hero.”
Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer pointed out that Mr. Miller previously praised Mr. Kerry, as well as Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
“So it’s no surprise that back home in Georgia they call him Zig Zag Zell,” Mr. Singer said. “At the end of the day, people are going to reject the spitball, spitfire brand of politics that Zell Miller and George Bush enjoy and go with a candidate who has a plan to put America back on the right track.”