msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 9/3/2004 10:06:30 AM ET 2004-09-03T14:06:30

After gauging the harsh reaction from Democrats and Republicans alike to Sen. Zell Miller ’s keynote address at the Republican National Convention, the Bush campaign — led by the first lady — backed away Thursday from Miller’s savage attack on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry , insisting that the estranged Democrat was speaking only for himself.

Late Thursday, Miller and his wife were removed from the list of dignitaries who would be sitting in the first family’s box during the president’s acceptance speech later in the evening. Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said Miller was not in the box because the campaign had scheduled him to do too many television interviews.

There was no explanation, however, for why Miller would be giving multiple interviews during Bush’s acceptance speech, or what channels would snub the president in favor of Miller. Nor was it made clear why Miller’s wife also was not allowed to take her place in the president’s box 24 hours after his deeply personal denunciation of his own party’s nominee.

The change was made only a few hours after Laura Bush, asked about Miller’s speech, said in an interview with NBC News that “I don’t know that we share that point of view.” Aides to President Bush and his campaign said Miller was not speaking for all Republicans.

Miller, who all but abandoned his party after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, returned Wednesday to Madison Square Garden to denounce Kerry as “more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure.”

It was in the same hall 12 years ago that Miller, then the respected conservative Democratic governor of Georgia, enthusiastically supported Bill Clinton and belittled President Bush’s father as “a timid man who hears only the voices of caution and the status quo” and a “commander-in-chief [who] talks like Dirty Harry but acts like Barney Fife.”

Wednesday night, Miller delivered a fervent pro-Bush sermon that infuriated Democrats and left even some Republicans unsettled.

“No pair has been more wrong, more loudly, more often, than the two senators from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry,” Miller said. “Together, Kennedy and Kerry have opposed the very weapons system that won the Cold War and that is now winning the war on terror.”

“This is the man who wants to be the commander-in-chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?” he asked in a cold and controlled fury. “... For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure.”

Democrats were furious. Led by Kerry himself, who planned to fire back sharply in a midnight rally Thursday night in Ohio, Democrats accused Miller of lying about Kerry’s record and predicted that his address would backfire in the way Patrick Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican convention damaged the first President Bush.

The Bush campaign stepped backed from Miller’s comments Thursday after it was received with almost immediate criticism, including complaints from prominent Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

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“Well, Zell Miller is a very experienced politician,” McCain, who spoke earlier at the convention, told NBC News on Wednesday night.

“I’m sure he knew exactly what he was talking about. [But] I just don’t agree with the fact that the Democrats are unpatriotic or the assertion that the Democrats are unpatriotic,” he said. “I don’t think they are.”

In an interview Thursday, Laura Bush told NBC News’ Tom Brokaw: “I don’t know that we share that point of view. I mean, I think Zell Miller has a very interesting viewpoint, just like I had the personal viewpoint to talk about the president when I spoke on Tuesday night. ...

“But, I mean, his voice is one with a lot,” the first lady said. “You also heard Senator McCain. You also heard Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger.”

A senior White House official, speaking to reporters before Bush’s address Thursday night, said, “Senator Miller was speaking on behalf of himself and obviously on behalf of himself.”

Turning away from his party
Miller, 72, was retired from politics after serving two terms as governor of Georgia when he was appointed to complete the Senate term of Republican Paul Coverdell in 2000. He promised that he would not hew to the partisan dictates of his party and was subsequently elected to the seat in his own right.

Miller kept that promise, to the extent that after the Sept. 11 attacks he emerged as one of Bush’s strongest supporters. Miller explained his endorsement of Bush for re-election and decision to speak in his behalf as the fruit of his disenchantment with the Democratic Party, which he said had abandoned its middle-of-the-road ideals for far-left advocacy.

It was a theme Miller sounded again Wednesday night in a harsh denunciation of his own party’s presidential nominee. But Miller made it clear that more than just repudiating his own party, he was embracing the president.

“Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations,” he said. “Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide.”

“Faint-hearted self-indulgence will put at risk all we care about in this world,” Miller said. “In this hour of danger, our president has had the courage to stand up. And this Democrat is proud to stand up with him.”

Miller recited a long list of what he said were “all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down.” He apologized for sounding “like an auctioneer selling off our national security, but Americans need to know the facts.”

Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, told NBC News on Thursday that Miller went “way over the top.” In an appearance on CBS’s “The Early Show,” he said: “What we heard from the Republicans in that hall last night was an enormous amount of anger.”

“Anger’s not going to change this country and do what needs to be done for America,” he said in Norristown, Pa.

Joe Lockhart, a spokesman for Kerry, predicted a backlash. “Slash and burn politics didn’t work in 1992,” he said. “They won’t work now.”

By Msnbc.com’s Alex Johnson. NBC’s Mary Murray and Felix Schein in New York and MSNBC’s Tom Llamas in Norristown, Pa., contributed to this report

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