RICHMOND -- With his shirt sleeves rolled up and his hands humbly in his pockets, Oliver L. North walked into a university auditorium this week to see something he has rarely seen as he has roared through Virginia in pursuit of Sen. Charles S. Robb's Senate job:
Rows of empty seats, followed by a smattering of students sitting with arms crossed, heads cocked, eyebrows twisting with skepticism.
Virginia Union University, a black college here whose alumni include former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, is not exactly a typical campaign stop for Mr. North, the Republican candidate who has become the darling of conservatives and evangelicals.
But as the highly celebrated and unlikely political candidate sprints to the finish of his race, the Iran-contra figure -- a man who broke the law and admitted he lied about it to Congress -- is going for broke. He is mounting a state-of-the-art voter-turnout machine, plastering airwaves with ads and even making an appeal, albeit fleeting, to voters his party chairman concedes are out of the candidate's reach: African-Americans.
Although the Virginia Union students listened politely as Mr. North replied to their brazen questions -- "How can you represent Virginia in a positive way when you're known as a shabby person and a liar?" -- he appeared to win no votes.
Not that he expected to. Given the inert campaign waged by the incumbent senator and the independent candidacy of J. Marshall Coleman, which appears to be skimming off more votes from Mr. Robb than from Mr. North, Mr. North is confident that a landslide among Christian conservatives and rural voters will swing him to victory.
'We can win'
"If we over-perform in our stronghold, perform well in the [Virginia] Beach [area] and Southside and keep the gap in Northern Virginia from being too cavernous, we can win," says Mark Goodin, a senior adviser to the North campaign.
Polls conducted this week show that the race is a dead heat. In a poll released yesterday by Virginia Commonwealth University, Mr. Robb leads, with 38 percent of likely voters; Mr. North follows, with 36 percent; Mr. Coleman receives 15 percent; and 11 percent are still undecided. The poll of 807 likely voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points, so Mr. Robb's lead is statistically insignificant.
Similarly, in a poll released last night by Mason Dixon Political/Media Research, Mr. Robb led with 37 percent, followed by Mr. North, with 36 percent, and Mr. Coleman, with 17 percent. Ten percent were undecided, and the margin of error was also 3.5 percentage points.
With a campaign treasury of more than $17 million, much of it raised from out of state, the North campaign will call about 200,000 voters in the remaining days, send direct mail to undecided and Republican-leaning voters and air new TV spots.
For his part, the charismatic Mr. North appears to have more of a spring in his step these last days as he continues to hammer away at the Clinton administration, politics-as-usual and Mr. Robb.
On Wednesday, he staged a news conference in Washington behind the Jefferson Memorial "on the site of Chuck Robb's greatest legislative accomplishment," he said, "an empty lot of federal land on which a statue of George Mason will eventually be built."
On Tuesday, he accused Mr. Robb of "outright slander" for having approved a Democratic Party phone bank campaign that linked Mr. North to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Insisting that he campaigned against Mr. Duke's bid for a House seat in 1990, Mr. North accused Mr. Robb of playing "the ugly card of race" to save his "worn-out political hide."
Mr. Robb, in turn, has been relying on fear of the former Marine lieutenant colonel, whose felony convictions in the arms-for-hostages deal were overturned on a technicality, to pump up his campaign.
At a rally in Roanoke this week, he called Mr. North a "document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, commander-in-chief-bashing, ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, drug-condoning, Noriega-coddling, Swiss-banking, law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving snake-oil salesman."
To be sure, there is no gray area with Mr. North. As he wades into crowds of students, senior citizens or factory workers, he generates passion, both hot and cold.
"I just wanted to touch the hem of your garment," said Marie Uhrig, who ran out of a dentist's office to glimpse the candidate.
At a senior citizens center, residents queued up for autographs, some admiring the candidate's blue eyes and regular-guy demeanor. "You almost feel like you know him," gushed Louise Wash.
Not everyone responds adoringly to Mr. North's easy chitchat, his winks, his salutes of "Semper Fi" to fellow Marines and the greeting that has become his mantra: "Tell everyone you know I want their vote."
Some walk by silently, or rebuff him with, "You don't want to shake my hand." At a DuPont plant here, one worker passed the candidate by shouting: "How 'bout that Swiss bank account? Still got it?"
That was a reference to reports that Mr. North stands to benefit from $2 million in Swiss bank accounts that hold profits from arms sales to Iran -- an allegation he denies.
And if African-American students at Virginia Union were unmoved -- "He is what he professes to hate, a politician," said one, Cory Perkins -- his next stop on the campaign trail would find him basking in rich, white, Republican adulation.
Change of scene
At a $250-a-plate fund-raiser at the opulent Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, more than 300 Virginia Republicans, joined by former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gov. George Allen, dined amid chandeliers, red roses and American flags.
"I believe in Ollie North," said Jimmy Dean, the sausage king, wearing a cowboy hat and gem-studded rings in the shape of cowboy boots. "He's all wool and a yard wide."
Some were dismayed by Nancy Reagan's critical remarks last week that Mr. North could not distinguish fact from fantasy.
"I find the state of affairs with Republicans criticizing other Republicans very offensive," said John M. Poindexter, a Reagan national security adviser whose Iran-contra conviction was also thrown out on appeal. "President Reagan owes a lot to Ollie North."
Mr. Cheney became the latest likely Republican presidential contender to make the pilgrimage to Virginia to show support for Mr. North and, in the process, win points from the conservative wing of the party.
"This election is not about personalities," said Mr. Cheney. "It's not about Ollie North. It's about the principles he stands for."