Posted: Aug 31, 2004 12:00 AM

I don't usually make it a point of talking to the political leaders who are subjects of the polls for this column. This is partly because if they are Republicans and I report bad news, they call me a traitor. And if they are Democrats, they argue that I'm biased against them. But for readers of this column, it must now be clear that its main goal is to provide an accurate assessment of public opinion and of the strategies or events that can impact political leaders or public policy.

 This week, however, I freely admit to having talked with a man I have known since I was a child. We've known each other as good friends and fierce political adversaries. I think it's fair to say that through those years, I have gained enough understanding of Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller to offer here a clear look at who he is, why he is speaking at the Republican convention, and what he might say.

 First, some context for Miller's Wednesday night speech. The man is wildly popular in Georgia, even among Democrats. An InsiderAdvantage survey, taken after it was announced that Miller would be speaking at the GOP convention, found that he remains the state's most popular political leader. We asked:

 Q. Do you approve or disapprove of Sen. Zell Miller in the carrying out of his job?

Approve ..................64 percent
Disapprove ...............28 percent
Don't know/No opinion .....8 percent

 The survey of 300 respondents was conducted with our research associates, The Marketing Workshop. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percent.

 With polling numbers that high, it's fair to say that Miller needn't worry which political party he spends his time with. In Georgia, he is a political party unto himself.

 For those who will be hearing Miller for the first time, be ready to be taken aback by his delivery. His Appalachian-Mountain twang and pointed rhetorical style take some getting used to. But after some minutes, he becomes nearly hypnotic. The man has a unique ability to speak from his soul. It's a soul grounded in an upbringing by his strong-willed mother, who built the family's house stone by stone in the northern hill country of Georgia. It was reinforced by a stint in the Marines, and sealed solid by years of public service as his state's lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.

 All that aside, why is this Southern political folk hero willing to address the Republican convention, and in the same arena where in 1992 he praised his friend, then-Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton?

 It's because Miller's soul is never at rest. It ponders and searches, evaluates and re-evaluates. His critics have accused him of being "Zig-Zag Zell," a swipe at the many twists and turns in his political career. Miller started as the chief aide to controversial, right-wing Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, then transformed into a left-of-center opponent to a politically wounded Sen. Herman Talmadge, then re-emerged as the poster boy for the more moderate, Clinton-inspired Democratic Leadership Council. Finally he has landed as a conservative Democrat supporting a Republican president.

 But Miller's core political principles retain a fundamental consistency. Always a populist, Miller has found the Democratic leadership in the Senate far too elitist for his liking. The concept that a handful of Washington insiders could dictate positions that flew in the face of most of his home state's constituency was something he couldn't stomach.

 As for the charge that he has suddenly moved to the right -- in fact, the move has been in evidence for a long time. In the early and mid 1990s, Miller was a trailblazer among governors in leading the nation in the passage of laws requiring welfare recipients to work, and in sentencing dangerous criminal repeat offenders to life without parole. If Zell Miller has "Zig-Zagged" to a new philosophy, the first zig was a long time ago.

 What will he say Wednesday night on prime time TV? That's still under wraps. I can guess that he will acknowledge his speech for Clinton 12 years ago. He will also likely point out that back then, Clinton and he shared many of the same goals that brought a more moderate tone to the Democratic Party. Undoubtedly, he will deliver the strongest of defenses of George W. Bush, and it will be colored by the experiences of this former Marine drill sergeant. And given that Miller is nationally known for having created a lottery-based free college tuition for qualified students in Georgia -- dubbed the HOPE scholarship -- he likely will focus on the "hope" of the future.

 None of this will keep Democratic operatives from trying to paint him as a traitor to the party that brought him success, or as a hypocrite who enjoyed the Democratic national spotlight under Clinton, and now basks in the GOP convention of 2004. But the cool and calm Miller I spoke with on Saturday won't be rattled by his critics. For Zell Miller, it will be the last and greatest "Zig-Zag" of a career to be remembered.