ATLANTA - Maybe it's their ages, 69 in the case of former U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly and 68 for former Georgia Gov. and current Sen. Zell Miller.
Certainly, it's the unusual and tragic events surrounding this fall's race to succeed Sen. Paul Coverdell that produced two initially reluctant combatants, veteran politicians old enough to be spending their days contemplating their accomplishments rather than aiming at new ones.
Instead, Democrat Mr. Miller and Republican Mr. Mattingly find themselves with the backing of their respective parties in a seven-way nonpartisan election to complete the final four years of Mr. Coverdell's unexpired term. The 61-year-old Republican died last July of complications from a stroke.
The two and their five opponents have been invited to appear together tonight for an hourlong debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. It will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. on Georgia Public Television outlets across the state.
It was Gov. Roy Barnes, not Mr. Miller, who came calling after Mr. Coverdell's death. Shortly after visiting his two-term predecessor at Mr. Miller's home in Young Harris, Mr. Barnes tapped him to fill the seat for the rest of this year, and the ex-governor declared that he would seek election to the post Nov. 7.
"I'm pleased and honored that Governor Barnes appointed me to do it," Mr. Miller said. "But I also realize that until the people have spoken, it's all temporary."
Mr. Mattingly, who held the Senate seat for one term during the 1980s, did not jump immediately at the opportunity either. He waited while several of Georgia's current crop of congressional Republicans weighed the pros and cons of jumping into the race.
As they took their names out of consideration one by one rather than abandon their House seats, party leaders and Coverdell loyalists urged Mr. Mattingly to give it a go.
"The group that approached me ... was sympathetic with the congressional delegation," Mr. Mattingly said. "But we all knew (the Republicans) didn't want to lose the majority in the House."
Both men bring reams of political and governmental experience to the race, both inside and outside of elective office.
Mr. Miller has won election at every level of government from mayor to governor, including state senator and lieutenant governor. Between his four years in the Georgia Senate and his 16-year run as lieutenant governor, he held a host of appointive posts, highlighted by a stint as executive secretary to then-Gov. Lester Maddox.
Prior to Mr. Mattingly's six years in the Senate, where he became Georgia's first Republican in that body since Reconstruction, he served for two years as state GOP chairman. After Democrat Wyche Fowler turned him out of office in 1986, Mr. Mattingly was appointed by Republican presidents to a post at NATO and as ambassador to the Seychelles, a nation of islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa.
AFTER 14 YEARS OUT of the public eye in Georgia, Mr. Mattingly's biggest challenge is to build his name recognition among voters, many of whom either didn't live here when he was in the Senate or were too young to follow politics.
It doesn't help his cause that Mr. Miller left the governorship early last year riding an 85 percent approval rating, largely the result of the widely popular HOPE scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs he created and funded with a new state lottery.
The two most recent polls of the Senate race showed Mr. Mattingly trailing Mr. Miller by a whopping 28 percent margin in one, and by 18 percent in the other. More than half of the respondents in one poll said they didn't know enough about the Republican to form an opinion of him.
"People other than those with a strong party loyalty are reluctant to vote for a candidate they know nothing about," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Thus far, lack of money has hampered Mr. Mattingly's efforts to boost his name recognition.
MR. MILLER HAD ENOUGH financial backing to hit the television airwaves immediately after Labor Day. Mr. Mattingly didn't get his first TV ad up until the first week of October, then was forced to pull it because its main character, a duck that quacked, "Back Mack," was too close an imitation of the duck featured in an AFLAC insurance ad, and the Columbus-based company objected.
With less money than Mr. Miller, Mr. Mattingly has been forced to make his case in person on the campaign trail.
Mr. Miller, stuck in Washington in the hectic waning weeks of the congressional session, has ceded that territory to the challenger, and Mr. Mattingly has taken full advantage. He has been criss-crossing the state for weeks, addressing supporters at "kitchen Cabinet" sessions, appearing before civic groups and bringing well-known Republicans to Georgia to endorse him.
U.S. Rep. John Linder said the stump is where Mr. Mattingly really shines as a candidate. Mr. Linder, R-Tucker, said that in 1975, when the state Republican Party was in its infancy and couldn't field a legitimate statewide candidate, GOP leaders turned to the then-party chairman to carry their message throughout Georgia.
"He traveled every road in the state," Mr. Linder said. "He'd go into a town, talk to a Rotary Club or Kiwanis Club, do a newspaper interview and, instead of talking about voting for him, he'd talk about voting for the local candidate. ... He made a lot of friends, people he could call on."
THE COMMON THEME of Mr. Mattingly's advertising and campaign stops has been that he is the right choice to carry on Mr. Coverdell's legacy because of their long friendship and shared Republican beliefs. Like Mr. Coverdell, he was a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and counts his blocking of efforts to dismantle the federal peanut subsidy in 1981 as his first major victory.
Mr. Mattingly also argues that Georgians would be better served by a Republican senator in Washington, particularly with the GOP holding the majority in the Senate, rather than having to rely on Democrats Mr. Miller and Sen. Max Cleland.
And despite Mr. Miller's politically centrist record as governor, Mr. Mattingly charges that the incumbent would be just another liberal Democrat once he's co-opted by his party's Senate leaders.
"It's two different things being a United States senator and being a governor," Mr. Mattingly said. "Being a governor, you're a czar. You're running things. In the United States Senate, you're playing on a team. ... His team is (Sen. Edward) Kennedy (D-Mass.) and (Minority Leader Tom) Daschle (D-S.D.)"
BUT MR. MILLER IS VOWING to take a bipartisan approach in Washington, as he did when he was governor, when he worked with Republicans to enact the lottery, welfare reform and legislation stiffening sentences for repeat violent offenders.
"These wouldn't have passed without Republican help," he said. "That's the way I've always done things."
As a senator, Mr. Miller sees himself in the mold of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a conservative Democrat who didn't hesitate to buck his party leadership and often worked with Republicans.
The Senate didn't get a chance to override President Clinton's veto of Republican-backed legislation ending the federal marriage-tax penalty and abolishing the federal estate tax because a House override attempt failed. But Mr. Miller said he would have sided with the GOP on the measures and voted to override.
The senator also has taken on some of Mr. Coverdell's projects on the Agriculture Committee, including drought relief for farmers, and is cosponsoring several bills championed by Mr. Coverdell, among them his proposal to allow parents to set up savings accounts to help cover such public or private elementary- or secondary-school costs as computers, tuition or tutoring.
Mr. Miller even has retained some of Mr. Coverdell's staffers, including senior policy adviser Alex Albert, son of former state Sen. Frank Albert of Augusta.
"My decision first was based on continuing Senator Coverdell's work in the Senate ... making sure that nothing fell through the cracks," said the younger Mr. Albert. "I'm comfortable working with Senator Miller. I think he can be effective and still maintain his conservative credentials up here."
DESPITE THEIR EARLY hesitation to re-enter the political arena, both Mr. Miller and Mr. Mattingly have a great deal to gain.
For Mr. Miller, it's a chance to culminate a successful political career spanning four decades in local and state office by winning election to Congress, something he's failed to achieve in three other attempts.
Mr. Mattingly can become the Republicans' savior if he can overcome his underdog status and hold onto the GOP's loftiest foothold in Georgia politics.
But neither candidate expresses the stakes in personal terms.
"I see it as an opportunity to serve the people of Georgia in a different way, on the federal level," is Mr. Miller's take on the new job he'd like to keep for more than five months.
Mr. Mattingly sees the race as a quest, both for the Republican Party and for the 51 percent of voters cited in one Republican poll who said they wanted Georgia to have a GOP presence in the Senate.
"The feeling for this race is different than when I ran before," he said. "There's a joy in doing this ... Stepping up to the plate is really sort of a mission."
Born: Anderson, Ind.
Lives: St. Simons Island
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Indiana
Military service: Staff sergeant, U.S. Air Force
Occupation: Served as marketing manager for IBM, founded and ran own computer business
Political experience: Georgia Republican chairman, 1975-77; U.S. senator, 1981-86; assistant secretary general for defense support at NATO; 1987-90; U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles, 1992-93
Family: Married, two daughters, five grandchildren
Born and lives: Young Harris
Education: Associate degree, Young Harris College; bachelor's and master's degrees, University of Georgia
Military service: Sergeant, U.S. Marines
Occupation: Taught history and political science, Young Harris College, University of Georgia, Emory University
Political experience: Mayor of Young Harris, 1959-60; state senator, 1961-64; several state government positions, including executive secretary to Gov. Lester Maddox, 1965-74; lieutenant governor, 1975-90; governor, 1991-99
Family: Married, two sons, four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.