IT IS remarkable, but true. Iran-contra figure Oliver North is the odds-on favorite to win the Virginia Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Should he win that nomination, it appears that he will face incumbent Democrat Charles Robb, a politician who is so soiled by allegations of sexual and legal improprieties that almost anyone can unseat him. Without some drastic, intervening event, the possibility of Colonel North taking a seat next year in the U.S. Senate is a real one.
For political observers outside Virginia, the question that naturally arises is: How could this have happened?
In brief, the state's Republican Party -- which is largely dominated by diamond-hard conservatives and the religious right -- deliberately decided against holding an open party primary nomination contest so as to virtually assure Colonel North's selection. The preferred nomination process -- party caucuses leading up to a closed convention -- strongly favors the highly committed ideological activists. It is that process that guaranteed the 1993 nomination of a controversial former Baptist minister and Moral Majority leader, Michael Farris, for lieutenant governor. It is a process that conspires against the selection of Colonel North's only opponent, former Reagan administration budget director Jim Miller.
Virginia's senior senator, Republican John Warner, implored his party to favor a primary nomination process. The party leadership rebuked him. More recently, Senator Warner declared Colonel North "unfit" by character to serve in the Senate. Mr. Warner has incurred the wrath of those supporters of Mr. Farris and Colonel North who now talk about an intraparty challenge to Senator Warner in 1996 (with Mr. Farris as the most likely challenger).
It is no wonder, then, that the state's leading Republican, Gov. George Allen, a man with presidential aspirations, remains conspicuously silent about Colonel North's candidacy. The popular new governor won election in a landslide last year. He is the one person in Virginia who has the stature and credibility to make the case against the North candidacy.
He is also a good politician who understands the risks of so doing -- alienating the most fervent of the conservatives. Therefore, the governor will continue to stay on the sidelines in this year's Republican Party nomination contest.
Meanwhile, Colonel North is raising millions of dollars with crowd-pleasing denunciations of the institution he wishes to serve. He gives detailed accounts of policy meetings with President Reagan that never took place. In campaign stops, he frequently misstates the names of regions and counties. His followers don't seem to care.
In the first joint candidate appearance featuring the two Republican candidates, the contrast between their styles could not have been more painfully obvious. On policy issues, there was little difference. Both presented themselves as committed conservatives. But Colonel North spoke in a crowd-pleasing and charismatic tone that made Mr. Miller's more measured and thoughtful responses look bland.
Judging from audience response at this Republican gathering, Colonel North carried the day. The crowd even greeted Mr. Miller's pledge never to compromise the nation's constitutional principles mostly with stony silence, broken only by some hisses.
At this rate, there appears to be no stopping Colonel North's charge for the Republican nomination, unless the one man who remains the unchallenged hero of the conservative movement speaks out. That man, of course, is former President Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Reagan knows that what John Warner has said is true: Oliver North is not fit to serve in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Reagan knows that Colonel North has repeated false stories about Iran-contra and about the former president's knowledge and actions. Furthermore, Mr. Reagan has a luxury enjoyed by few public figures: the opportunity to make a principled appeal without any consideration of political ramifications. And he alone has the stature among conservatives to put an end to Oliver North's campaign.
There is one more compelling reason for such action by the former president. In the 1994 Virginia Senate race, there is only one person who deserves recognition as a true heir of Reaganism: Jim Miller. The former budget director may not be the most exciting man to run for the Senate. But philosophically, Mr. Miller is a consistent, thoughtful Reagan Republican. Unlike his Republican opponent, Jim Miller in the U.S. Senate would be an unerring and constitutionally reliable defender of Reagan principles, not an embarrassment and constant reminder of the low point of the Reagan years.
It's up to Mr. Reagan himself to tell Virginia's conservative activists that Oliver North does not deserve the esteemed honor of serving in the Senate.
Mark K. Rozell is associate professor of political science at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. His book, "Executive Privilege: The Dilemma of Secrecy and Democratic Accountability," will be published this year by Johns Hopkins University Press.