RICHMOND, Va. -- Former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a 1996 Republican presidential hopeful, told about 400 party faithful here the other night that the Senate race in Virginia between Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb and GOP challenger Oliver North "is not about personalities, it's not about Ollie North. It's about the principles he stands for."
But if Cheney were right in that assessment, the campaign would be all over now and Robb would be thinking about new employment. The fact that the polls indicate that the race is going down to the wire is attributable directly to personalities, and specifically the personality of Oliver North.
If conservative Republican principles were the prime motivator, any GOP nominee would be a walk-in this year. The party won a resounding statewide victory a year ago in the election of Gov. George Allen, on the heels of the rejection of Democrat Bill Clinton in Virginia in 1992. Democratic warnings of a return to the Reagan years cause little quaking in the Old Dominion.
Beyond that, Robb is very tarnished political goods, in the wake of his ugly and very public feud with fellow Democrat and former Gov. Doug Wilder, and accounts of sexual high jinks that Robb has all but admitted. His record in the Senate has been nothing to write home about, either, although Robb is touting it, and his four previous years as governor, as reason to re-elect him.
But Cheney's view notwithstanding, North the personality is what this election is all about. On the issues, he embraces the pure conservative gospel about government grown too big and intrusive that is in fashion almost everywhere in the state except the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. And he preaches that gospel with the fervor of the old-fashioned Chautauqua circuit rider that he resembles.
Voter concern that the preacher has trouble with the truth, however, blankets the statewide congregation. That explains why the latest poll, by Virginia Commonwealth University, shows Robb a sliver ahead among likely voters, 38 percent to 36 percent, with a remarkable 15 percent for Republican J. Marshall Coleman, running as an anti-North independent, and 11 percent still undecided.
The Coleman vote largely represents Republicans who can't bring themselves to vote for their own party's standard-bearer. Robb is courting them, especially pro-choice Republicans in Northern Virginia, with television commercials reminding them of past Coleman flip-flops on the abortion issue. Coleman's candidacy continues to hurt Robb because it drains off a portion of the anti-North constituency.
Although Robb has been campaigning on his record in education as governor and senator and other substantive issues, he
demonstrated that he recognizes that North the man is the issue that will determine the outcome of the election. In a scathing speech the other night in Roanoke, he called North "a document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, commander-in-chief bashing, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, drug-condoning, Noriega-coddling, Swiss-banking, lawbreaking, letter-faking, self-serving snake oil salesman who can't tell the difference between the truth and a lie."
Among still-faithful Republicans, such name-calling goes in one ear and out the other. Not only is North's involvement in the
Iran-contra scandal swept aside, but it is seen as a badge of
honor. Another speaker at the fund-raising dinner here was former Adm. John Poindexter, convicted along with North of charges growing out of the scandal. His conviction, like North's, was thrown out on grounds it was tainted by the earlier grant of congressional immunity.
Poindexter, former President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, drew cheers when he observed: "During my five years at the White House, I was involved more closely with Ollie than anybody else. He did what he was told to do." That remark was not exactly a denial of wrongdoing, but the faithful applauded lustily.
Both sides say intensity of feeling may determine voter turnout, and the election. North supporters are demonstrably avid, while Robb voters seem avid essentially in opposition to North. At a news conference at National Airport, Robb's efforts to peddle his accomplishments were constantly drowned out by the roar of aircraft. It was a fitting metaphor for the campaign, in which the furor over Ollie North has made it nearly impossible for constructive issue discussion to be heard.