Senate candidates in Va. define term 'winning ugly'



WASHINGTON -- When they are not on strike, baseball players often talk about "winning ugly" -- meaning winning games that are less than artistic triumphs. The term could well be applied to whoever wins the Senate election this year in Virginia. It's ugly.

You begin with two major-party candidates -- Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb and Republican challenger Oliver North -- both carrying enough political baggage to sink the Lusitania and struggling to get off the defensive.

Then there are two independents -- Democratic former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Republican Marshall Coleman, a former state attorney general with the distinction of already having lost three statewide campaigns -- running as spoilers.

The quality of the campaign was defined neatly at a debate at Hampden-Sydney College the other night in which each of them was asked a question not common in such situations: How could he explain why he should be elected, given his "character problems?"

That, of course, is what the campaign is all about. Virginia voters are being asked, in effect, whether they prefer an incumbent (Robb) who has admitted sexual indiscretions or a challenger (North) convicted of lying to Congress. Or, alternatively, whether they might support an independent (Wilder) continuing a long-term vendetta against Robb or another independent (Coleman) whose candidacy has no rationale beyond stopping Oliver North.

At this point, public and unpublished opinion polls suggest a close contest between Robb and North, each with about one-third of the electorate, while Wilder and Coleman trail. Among political professionals, the conventional wisdom is that North has the most firmly committed support and Robb the best opportunity to grow because he is the second choice of more Wilder and Coleman supporters.

If this assessment is accurate, the reasonable expectation would be that Coleman, Wilder or both would see some of their supporters defect to Robb as the election draws closer and it becomes apparent that neither is a serious challenger.

But the dynamics of the campaign are not so clear. Because North's support is considered highly committed, both Wilder and Coleman are directing most of their fire at Robb. Coleman depicts the Democratic incumbent as a devoted supporter of President Clinton, not the best thing to be in Virginia these days. And the caustic Wilder ham- mers at the question of Robb's personal history.

During the debate, for example, Wilder was the first to raise the issue of reports that Robb had attended parties at which cocaine was used.

"You've been in the company of people who've been convicted of drug use," Wilder said tartly. "Don't tell me you're going to stand up on your moral high horse now."

When Robb replied, "I have never in my life seen or been in the company of . . . anyone that I believed was using drugs," Wilder countered to applause from the audience: "What you see is one thing, and what you want to believe is another."

The question is, how much of this focus on his personal life can Robb endure and still be seen as a viable alternative to North by those Virginians who simply cannot swallow the Iran-contra figure as a plausible senator?

Robb conceded during the debate, as he has in the past, that "I have some dents in my armor." But he was clearly uncomfortable and never able to keep attention turned on the more conventional issues, such as policy on North Korea or budget reduction.

By contrast, North blithely admitted that he made "mistakes" on Iran-contra, presumably including lying to Congress, but that they were made "in order to save lives" -- something that could hardly be said of Robb's admission that he once received a nude massage from a former Miss Virginia in a New York hotel room.

"The bottom line," said North, "is that I kept my commitments."

It is far from clear how many Virginians may be naive enough to accept this disingenuous defense from someone like Ollie North. But it could be as many as are willing to accept Chuck Robb's insistence that he didn't see anyone sniffing cocaine at those parties.

All in all, it is not a campaign that could be considered an educational experience for the voters.

But "winning ugly" beats losing every time.

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