Leading Robb in polls, North is playing it safe


POTOMAC MILLS, Va. -- In the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse here, Ollie North is greeting well-wishers and autographing lawn signs until shouts of "Liar!" and "You're despicable!" force him to take refuge inside his Winnebago.

With a full moon rising behind the stream of taillights on Interstate 95, he sets out in his trusty RV, a traveling war room nicknamed "Rolling Thunder," heading south in the twilight for friendlier terrain.

Once in Fredericksburg, at a Christian Leadership Forum on Tuesday, Mr. North, with his well-worn Bible and cowboy boots, luxuriates in cheers of "Ol-LIE" and "Hallelujah!" -- the adulation that has propelled his extraordinary candidacy in the rock 'em, sock 'em Senate race in Virginia.

In the final three weeks of the campaign, Republican nominee Oliver L. North -- the Iran-contra figure who is the very embodiment of the anti-Washington, anti-incumbent fervor that is shaping the 1994 election season -- is retreating from any danger zones and sticking to a kind of by-the-book campaign strategy that has given him an edge in his remarkable challenge of incumbent Democrat Charles S. Robb.

There will be no debates. Media coverage will be on his terms. has rolled out a feel-good TV ad that paints his role in the Reagan-era arms-for-hostages affair -- in which he admitted lying to Congress -- in heroic tones. And he continues to deliver his evangelical-style, anti-Clinton rhetoric that resonates like Sunday church bells in Virginia's small towns and rural corners.

"The enthusiasm meter is all on North's side still," says Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Yesterday, a new poll from the Mason-Dixon Opinion Research showed Mr. North ahead, with 37 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him, compared with Mr. Robb with 33 percent, and J. Marshall Coleman, the independent candidate, with 16 percent and 14 percent still undecided.

"It's still a very competitive race," said Brad Coker, director of the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. "Everything looks like it's going North's way, but they're like a couple of drivers driving 100-gallon gasoline trucks down -- the highway. One little slip of the wheel and either of them could go up in flames real fast."

Indeed, with media scrutiny turned up in these countdown days -- Canadian and Norwegian TV crews and Ted Koppel joined dozens of journalists following Mr. North this week -- he knows that the election may be his to lose.

And he knows he cannot afford another misstep like his remarks earlier this month doubting the nation's military preparedness -- just as the president was sending troops to repel Iraqi forces near Kuwait -- and asserting that Bill Clinton was not his commander in chief.

His handlers, privately furious at Mr. North's remarks, dismissed them as the result of fatigue. But the comments put the candidate on the defensive. Compounding the damage were his less-than-candid comments to students about his role in Iran-contra, and the revival this week of old allegations that Mr. North and his family stood to benefit from $2.3 million in Swiss bank accounts left from the Iran-contra scandal.

Running against the media

After a week of dodging the media -- canceling meetings with editors at several newspapers, withholding his campaign schedule, closing his events to the media and then ducking out back doors -- Mr. North has now come out of hiding. And he has cast the media as an intrusive adversary.

"I'm tired of having reporters . . . knock people down trying to stick that camera up my nostril," a testy Mr. North told reporters Tuesday as he barred them from entering an American Legion post in Fairfax.

Although Mr. North insists he wants to talk about issues, which have been all but ignored, he says he refuses to debate because Mr. Robb, who now believes a face-off would help his chances, had turned down Mr. North's previous debate offers.

"He expects me to dance to the beat of his drum like he dances to the beat of Bill Clinton's," Mr. North said, sounding another theme.

And having amassed more than $17 million, on the verge of surpassing the congressional campaign record, Mr. North is saturating the airwaves with ads. This week, he abandoned an attack ad featuring the Playboy cover of a beauty queen with whom Mr. Robb admitted he had had "inappropriate" relations.

Mr. North said his mother and wife disapproved of the negative ad and explained that Mr. Robb had opened fire by launching a negative ad attacking Mr. North's honesty.

"He started it," the former Marine said of his fellow former Marine. "I am not going to sit under enemy incoming and not shoot back."

Yesterday, he launched an ad featuring the testimony of an American who was held hostage in Beirut. In the ad, the former hostage says Mr. North's actions during Iran-contra helped secure his safe release.

Mr. Robb responded yesterday: "This is an attempt to take a single example and hope it will distort the big picture. The big picture has very little to do with saving lives."

The Reagan administration scandal, in which Mr. North was convicted of three felony counts, including obstructing Congress, is still the defining event of Mr. North's career -- and of his candidacy. The convictions were thrown out on appeal.

And if his strategists worried that recent blunders might rekindle the perception of Mr. North as a "loose cannon," as Senate Republican leader Bob Dole called him in the late 1980s, they had reason to worry.

Phil Gomez, a Republican former Marine from Arlington, said he had planned to vote for Mr. North until hearing his remarks lambasting the president last week.

"There's something very un-American about a man who doesn't support his commander in chief," said Mr. Gomez, who went to Potomac Mills shopping center Tuesday evening to talk to Mr. North.

After speaking briefly with the candidate, Mr. Gomez, an avid supporter of Virginia's conservative governor, George Allen, said would vote for Mr. Robb. "I got a very bad taste in my mouth from" Mr. North, Mr. Gomez said.

Mr. North may show hints of fatigue -- his appearances are less exuberant than they once were -- but, in contrast to Mr. Robb's consistently lackluster campaign, he talks like a man confident of victory.

When a reporter asks how he will surge ahead in such a tight race, he snaps back, "Who says it's a tight race?" Asked whether Mr. Coleman is a factor, he responds, "Who?"

Before hundreds of supporters at this week's Christian Fellowship event, Mr. North never mentioned either of his opponents. Instead, he railed against what he called Wash

ington's "liberal monopoly" of politicians and press, and asked his followers to "be centurions" -- like those in the Book of Matthew -- and go out and bring others into the fold.

After an hour, he was asked to explain his role in the arms-for-hostages deal.

He said that, in withholding information from Congress in 1987 about his role in Iran-contra, he had made a choice. "Sometimes," he said, ". . . we will be judged by the choice we make for the rest of our lives."

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