NORFOLK, Va. -- Unable to put the Iran-contra scandal behind him in his race for the U.S. Senate, Oliver North has decided to embrace it, appealing for sympathy as a patriotic anti-communist driven by compassion when he defied and deceived Congress.
After having been hammered by many fellow Republicans as a liar unfit for higher office, Mr. North told a group of Virginia GOP activists last weekend that he would do it all over again: Sell arms to Iran, give aid to the Nicaraguan contras, lie to Congress and shred government records in a cover-up.
Though Mr. North previously tried to brush away the Iran-contra scandal and his conviction on three felonies -- later overturned -- as "ancient history," he said Saturday, "I don't mind answering for Iran-contra.
"I've done it for seven years and I'll do it for 70 more if necessary," he told Republican activists in Virginia's Tidewater region.
His heart forced him, he said, to fight Communism in Central America and to try to free hostages in the Middle East from "brutal loneliness, despicable conditions and being tortured to death."
Mr. North's primary race against James C. Miller is the most closely watched of all 34 Senate and 435 House races up for grabs this year, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor.
The winner will go after the seat held by Democrat Charles C. Robb, who has been accused of womanizing, cocaine partying and sharing in the wiretapping of former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Robb enemy.
Mr. North is favored to beat Mr. Miller, especially since most Republicans who are expected to vote in the primary are conservative activists, many members of the Christian Religious Right.
Many Virginians are unhappy at the prospect. Mr. Sabato said public disgust with the choice is prompting many Virginians to consider supporting an independent candidate this year.
Mr. Sabato said Mr. North's nomination would certify that "God is just because God gave California earthquakes and wildfires and gave Virginia Robb and North."
Mr. Sabato said he expects candidates in the fall campaign to spend more than $15 million, probably making it the second most costly in the nation, after California.
Mr. Sabato drew hisses from the Republican audience when he said the nomination of Mr. North would take away from Republicans their best weapon to unseat Mr. Robb.
Mr. Miller served as Ronald Reagan's budget director and has endorsements from virtually everyone who served in a senior position during the eight years Mr. Reagan was in the White House.
Mr. North's current strategy is to picture himself as the target of hostility and bias from what he calls the "inside-the-Beltway professional politicians and liberal media elite."
That tactic enables him to brush off Mr. Miller's so-far futile attempt to set himself as the legitimate candidate of conservative Republican.
No substantive issues have yet to emerge in the Republican fight in Virginia, and Mr. North hopes to keep it that way. His campaign manager, Tim Carpenter, said that while Mr. North has precise positions on health reform, welfare, crime and other matters high on the congressional agenda this year, he will not disclose them because to do so would allow the press to dissect and mock them and damage his candidacy.
Mr. North has had difficulty raising money from traditional GOP givers. He said Saturday that over the past month he has gotten 70,000 contributions averaging $40. He has sent out tens of thousands of appeals for money to those who supported his legal defense fund when he was charged in the Iran-contra case.
Mr. Miller has virtually conceded that Mr. North is more popular than himself within Virginia Republican ranks. Mr. Miller's appeal is based on the argument that he can beat Mr. Robb and that Mr. North would lose because he would fail to gain votes from Democrats and independents in a state split almost evenly among the three categories.
Beyond contending with Mr. North's instant face and name recognition and legion of volunteers, Mr. Miller must overcome a physical appearance and speaking style that even he concedes with feigned humor is not senatorial.
Mr. North has grown into an effective campaigner, delivering his set speech with a sense of urgency and passion. Mr. Miller is more pedantic, coming across as far less tough than Mr. North in his ability to combat the crowd in Washington.
But Mr. North's appeal is not just his well-cultivated image as a retired Marine lieutenant colonel ready to do whatever it takes to oust liberals from power.
While Mr. Miller and others were on the sidelines, Mr. North has worked the state for more than three years. A new state senator, Steve Martin, puts his reason for supporting North bluntly: "Ollie helped me and others raise money to run."
But not all beneficiaries of Mr. North's help are totally committed. Melvin Bailey, a Newport News contractor who ran unsuccessfully for a Virginia House of Delegates seat with money raised for him by Mr. North, said his concern is that "Ollie is too hot to beat Robb."