Virginia's War of Words

September 06, 1994

The campaign rhetoric in Virginia's four-way U.S. Senate race is heating up in what is perhaps the nation's most fascinating -- and unpredictable -- election this year.

Democratic incumbent Sen. Charles Robb is fighting to keep his seat in a four-way slugfest that includes GOP challenger Oliver North of Iran-contra fame, plus independents Douglas Wilder and J. Marshall Coleman.

Mr. Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation's first elected black governor, launched his wildcat bid against long-time foe Mr. Robb after losing the state Democratic Senate primary earlier this year. Mr. Coleman, whom Mr. Wilder defeated for the Virginia governorship five years ago, jumped into the fray after Mr. North defeated a moderate Republican opponent at the GOP nominating convention last spring. The chaotic field has made the race into a battle royal.

Mr. North's response has been to go on the attack. Last week he lambasted his Democratic rival at a news conference in Northern Virginia, a Robb stronghold, charging the incumbent has a "seriously flawed character" and lacks the "moral force" to represent Virginia voters. The Robb camp shot back that Mr. North's claim was like the pot calling the kettle black. "Oliver North is in no position to question anyone's character," said a Robb spokesman.

The exchange provided a foretaste of what could turn into a brutal war of words. Mr. Robb has admitted attending wild parties in Virginia Beach while he was governor and receiving a nude massage from a former Miss Virginia in a New York hotel room. For his part, Mr. North has admitted to lying to Congress about selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to secretly fund the Nicaraguan contras while he was a member of the National Security Council. Even former President Reagan has publicly denounced his misstatements of fact.

Virginia voters will have to decide which is worse: Mr. Robb's weaknesses of the flesh or Mr. North's acknowledged contempt for the Senate body he now seeks to join. Mr. Robb at least concedes there's no excuse for his behavior. Mr. North cloaks himself in the righteousness of patriotic struggle against godless communism. Meanwhile, Mr. Wilder and Mr. Coleman invoke a pox on both their houses, but seem destined to play the role of spoilers. Voters want to see the best man win, but in this topsy-turvy year they will have a hard time figuring out exactly who that is.

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