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Miller objects to 'Hardball' questioner

NEW YORK -- Democratic Senator Zell Miller electrified a Republican crowd Wednesday night when he tore into Democratic nominee John F. Kerry for offering ''a bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies," and backing a defense budget that leaves the nation with ''spitballs" to defend itself.

But yesterday, Miller himself was on the defensive, after telling a TV host to ''get out of my face," and saying he wished the two lived during a time when they could battle it out in a duel. Miller, 72, calmed down a bit later on, but couldn't resist making fun of Kerry on a radio show yesterday morning for wearing ''silly little bicycle pants" when the Massachusetts senator went windsurfing.

Miller's anger drew speedy condemnation from Democrats, who say the retiring Georgia senator's ''rant" will alienate on-the-fence voters looking for a more positive message. ''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, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards -- who as a North Carolina senator is a colleague of Miller's -- defended Kerry as a ''patriot" at a campaign appearance in Norristown, Pa. yesterday and said the ''anger" displayed by Miller and Vice President Dick Cheney ''is not going to change this country and do what needs to be done for America."

But it was Miller's post-speech comments that were the buzz of the convention yesterday. Miller was challenged by several journalists about his criticism of Kerry for voting against a number of weapons systems over the years. Cheney himself proposed reducing military troop strength and cutting several weapons systems in the early 1990s when he was defense secretary. Miller bristled when asked about Cheney's votes and about his own attacks on his party's nominee.

''Get out of my face. If you are going to ask me a question, step back and let me answer. I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel," Miller said to MSNBC ''Hardball" host Chris Matthews, who is 58.

White House chief of staff Andrew Card, asked if it was a mistake to have Miller deliver the keynote address, said, ''no," and defended him. ''Zell Miller's speech was Zell Miller. He kind of tells it like he sees it," he said.

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