North can do no wrong preaching to the choir

May 12, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

ASHLAND, VA — ASHLAND, Va. -- Twelve hours and a hundred miles into an "if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Culpeper" tour of Virginia politics, and Oliver North is still standing, still talking.

The 150 mainly middle-aged men and women who have assembled at a country club for the monthly meeting of the Hanover Republican Women's Club sit in utter silence. What they hear is this: the whir of eight ceiling fans and the rising passion of one man reciting from the old-time gospel of conservative theology.

The candidate speaks of school prayer, term limits and a balanced budget amendment. He derides the "permanent political potentates of pork," and he sums up his controversial role in the Iran-contra affair by saying he only wanted to bring honor to "my family, my President, the Marines, the hostages and the freedom fighters."

"No one in the media ever believes it," he adds. "And that drives 'em nuts."

The crowd roars.

Love him or loathe him, Oliver L. North can still play a room. Asking for prayers, votes and money, he is running hard for the Republican nomination for senator in Virginia and aiming for a November showdown with the Democratic incumbent, Charles S. Robb.

The race is in the hand-to-hand stage, a brawl between Mr. North and former Reagan budget director James C. Miller III for a majority of the 14,000 GOP delegates who will convene June 4 at a nominating convention in Richmond.

Mr. North says he has the votes to win the nomination. But he takes nothing for granted. So the man whose fame was built on his electrifying performance under pressure during four days of televised congressional hearings in the summer of 1987 is working the tiny towns, smoky restaurants and small-watt radio stations of Virginia.

A day in the life of the Oliver North campaign is filled with tough talk against liberals "like Chuck Robb," and derisive humor aimed at the media big shots from "The Washington Compost" and the "Jane Fonda Network."

"I carry a copy of the Constitution with me," he says, holding up a small pamphlet. "Dan Rather said I shredded it."

Crowds tend to give him two standing ovations. The first when he enters a room. And the second when he leaves.

"He's going to be nominated, and he's going to win. So you left-leaning media better get on the ball," said Margaret Leet, who organized the women's club event Tuesday.

The former Marine lieutenant colonel is relentless, trading his olive green military uniform for a dark-blue suit and black wing-tipped shoes. But for him, campaigning is just like any other field maneuver.

Tuesday, he cut a swath from the Holiday Inn in Culpepper to Brenda's Restaurant in Richmond to the country club on the outskirts of Ashland. He met his delegates 50, 60 at a time.

In country by 8 a.m. Back home at his Narnia Farm in the Shenandoah Valley before midnight.

For 12 hours, he never stopped running -- or talking.

Cheers for Iran-contra

At 50, he still flashes the same, boyish, gap-toothed grin that once won over a portion of the country, and he has the ability to tell a story three times a day, making it seem fresh and emotional each time. And when the audience is in his corner, he hears cheers every time Iran-contra is mentioned.

"Some of the people caught up in that controversy of 1986-1987 triedsuicide, others tried drugs, others had their families break up or had their lives wrecked," he said during a brief interview between campaign appearances.

"I was taught from the time I was that high that when you get knocked down on your backside you get back up," he said. "Maybe that's why I was a boxer at Annapolis. Maybe why I was a Marine. Probably part of it was genetic, part of it was environmental."

Remember Iran-contra? It lurks over this campaign in the strangest of ways. The words come up, and the crowds that are drawn to Mr. North cheer as if they are reliving a great sports moment.

Mr. North organized the sale of arms to Iran in hopes of freeing Western hostages. Profits from the sale were then funneled to the Nicaraguan contras, despite a congressional ban on military aid to them.

Mr. North went up to Capitol Hill in July 1987, and before the bright lights of television and the stern faces of politicians, he verbally routed his foes. Although he was convicted in federal court of lying to Congress about his role in the scandal, the convictions were overturned on appeal.

Cashing in

So he became free. Free to cash-in on fame with two books and numerous speaking appearances, free to devote his energies to building up a business in law enforcement gear, and free to build his political base with a mailing list that is the envy of any conservative politician.

"This race is not a referendum on Iran-contra," Mr. North says over and over.

So far, it is difficult to decipher what this Virginia Senate campaign is about.

The Republican race is centered on two men with nearly identical po- litical views -- rock-ribbed conservatism. So at this point it is largely a race of personality and Mr. North's past.

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