RICHMOND, Va. -- Oliver L. North won the Republican nomination for the Senate here yesterday and immediately set the stage for a four-man campaign for the seat of the embattled Democratic incumbent, Charles S. Robb.
Mr. North defeated James C. Miller III, a former Reagan administration budget director, with more than 55 percent of the vote at a noisy but generally orderly party convention at the Richmond Coliseum.
The success of the hard-line conservative figure from the Iran-contra affair was expected to draw two more candidates into the race as independents, Democratic former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Republican former state Attorney General Marshall Coleman. Both already are circulating petitions that would qualify them for the ballot by the deadline June 14, the same day Senator Robb is expected to win renomination in a Democratic primary.
The Senate election in Virginia has been taking on added importance in the past few weeks as political professionals in both parties have come to the view that there is at least a realistic chance that the Republicans could win the seven seats they need to control the Senate in the next two years of President Clinton's term.
Conceding his loss here, Mr. Miller offered a quick, if perfunctory, promise to put the bitter contest for the nomination into the past. "It is important, ladies and gentlemen," he told more than 13,000 delegates, "that we now unite. We will get rid of Chuck Robb and put Bill Clinton on the run."
Gov. George Allen, who had remained neutral in the North-Miller competition, also joined the call for Republican unity. "I'll be in the trenches with you," he declared.
But many of the Miller delegates pointedly avoided joining the demonstration of unity and quickly left the hall -- suggesting that they have not changed their view that Mr. North's 1987 conviction on three felony counts, later reversed on appeal, makes up too much political baggage for him to carry against Mr. Robb.
Mr. North was characteristically defiant in victory, saying his success would send a message to the politicians in Washington: "This is our government, they stole it, and we're coming to take it back."
Deriding the "Washington crowd" with his usual vehemence, he told cheering admirers, "They'll never see Ollie North crawl up Capitol Hill to kiss their big, fat -- rings."
Mr. North's convention victory fulfilled almost precisely his campaign's own predictions.
He won seven of Virginia's 11 congressional districts and held his losses in strong Miller areas to minimal figures. In the 11th District in the Washington suburbs, for example, Mr. Miller won only by 758 to 708. Statewide, it was North, 4,858; Miller, 3,724.
The post-convention rhetoric did little to paper over the basic schism in the party over which Republican would have the best chance of defeating Mr. Robb, whose negatives in opinion polls are as high as Mr. North's because of Mr. Robb's personal indiscretions when he was governor of the state.
Mr. Miller originally had been given little or no chance of mounting even a serious challenge to Mr. North. But assaults on the former Marine officer by such fellow Republicans as Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia's most popular politician at the moment, former President Ronald Reagan and former Gov. Linwood Holton nourished more open doubts among regular Republicans about Mr. North as a viable candidate, even in a race against a compromised Democratic incumbent.
And opinion polls showed that Mr. Miller, but not Mr. North, could defeat Mr. Robb in the November general election.
Making his own case shortly before the voting, Mr. Miller pointed indirectly but unmistakably to both rivals' legal and ethical problems. "On the issues, I will beat Chuck Robb," he said. "On integrity, I will bury him."
But Mr. North delighted the crowd with his usual attack on the news media and "Washington insiders" and promised to rid the country of "Clinton, Koppel, Congress and Chuck" -- the Koppel being Ted, the anchor for the ABC News program "Nightline."
"Many powerful people will try to stand in our way," he said in an obvious reference to Senator Warner's promise to help Mr. Coleman's independent candidacy, "but I'd rather do what is right than be anointed by some professional politician."
The prospect of two independents with some political standing has set off puzzled speculation among political handicappers.
Mr. Wilder, the first black ever elected to a state governorship when he won here in 1989, would be expected to get overwhelming support from black voters who might makeup 17 percent to 18 percent of the total -- meaning that even with a modest white vote he could be a contender in a four-way race in which there is no runoff requirement.
Mr. Coleman's potential is harder to measure.
He has been advanced by Mr. Warner and others as a way to provide moderate Virginia Republicans a palatable alternative in the general election to Mr. North.
But Mr. Coleman already has lost three statewide races, and some Virginia strategists question his potential to match Mr. North's following among devout conservatives and voters from the religious right -- the same people who put Mr. North over the top here.