North has Robb in fight for political life

September 22, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Sun Staff Correspondent

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- With Oliver L. North touring the state in his Winnebago, triumphantly trumpeting his military career and thousands of veterans backing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, a panicky Sen. Charles S. Robb bolted into action this week, quickly mobilizing his own last-minute "Veterans for Robb" crusade.

In a hotel meeting room Tuesday night, with cheese and crackers and dragon-red punch nestled in a corner, a couple of dozen veterans, including two fellow senators, dropped by for Mr. Robb's slap-- kickoff.

Incredibly, the Democratic senator and former Marine, the one-time golden boy of the Commonwealth whose classic good looks and gold-plated political pedigree once seemed a natural for a presidential candidacy, is not only on the defensive; he is fighting for his political life in a Senate race that has become the political carnival of the campaign season.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the incumbent is threatened by a Republican challenger some dismissed as a political joke before he nabbed the nomination in the summer: a man who lied to Congress in connection with the Iran-contra scandal, a man who has been called the "Zhirinovsky of American politics," a man who polls show is disliked and distrusted by half the Virginia electorate.

Mr. Robb's troubles are so profound that the controversial gap-toothed former Marine could ride his conservative ideology, his populist shirt-sleeves appeal and a wave of anti-Clinton, anti-incumbent fever straight to the Capitol.

"So many people love the idea of sending an in-your-face message to Washington," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. "They can't think of any better in-your-face message than Ollie North, the guy who thumbed his nose at Congress."

According to a poll published this week by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mr. Robb -- scarred by allegations that he socialized with drug users and an admission of marital infidelity -- trails Mr. North by 6 percentage points, even with L. Douglas Wilder out of the race. Most strategists assumed that the withdrawal of Mr. Wilder, the former Democratic governor, would nudge Mr. Robb comfortably ahead.

"Most challengers would like to be pretty close to or slightly ahead of an incumbent, but most challengers don't have a ceiling in terms of the number of folks that they're likely to be able to persuade," said Mr. Robb, suggesting that Mr. North is unlikely to reach beyond a limited core of support and attract the large chunk of the electorate still undecided. "And I think that's the real challenge that Oliver North and his campaign face, in terms of being able to ultimately command the support of 50-plus percent of the electorate."

Mr. Robb's own challenge -- in what is now a three-man battle with Republican-turned-independent Marshall Coleman offering himself as the alternative to two "flawed" candidates -- is to rise above the "character" questions and the tidal wave of disenchantment with the Washington establishment.

For Virginia voters, the race has become a dizzying spectacle with dueling rhetoric about who is the real, more honorable Marine, who has the real values and, perhaps most of all, who is the least objectionable.

'Perjurer' vs. 'adulterer'

As one Robb supporter quipped at a crab feast fund-raiser, the race has come down to a choice between a "perjurer" and an "adulterer."

So far, the once-glamorous senator has waged a fairly lackluster campaign, emphasizing his earlier record as governor of Virginia and his "mainstream" politics. Even his celebrated mother-in-law, year-old former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, brought little poetry to the party fund-raiser where enthusiasm seemed as cool as the hard-shells sitting out in the night air.

"We're Democrats, and we'll stick with the party," said Joanne Spriggs of Annandale. "But I'm not exactly thrilled. Robb's the best of the worst."

Clearly, Mr. Robb is banking on widespread nervousness about Mr. North as his lifeline. Bumper stickers for sale by a Democratic club at the fund-raiser lambasted the competition: "North? Never." "I Don't Vote for Felons." Not one mentioned Mr. Robb's name.

If Mr. Robb has, so far, refrained from a full, frontal attack on his opponent, he suggests that he's saving his thunder for later.

"No one should be fooled by my relatively mild-mannered approach or good manners or any of the other niceties that I try to engage in," he told reporters this week.

Distancing from Clinton

Recognizing that fellow Democratic incumbents are endangered this election year, Mr. Robb has started distancing himself from President Clinton, who is increasingly unpopular in the state. And he has portrayed himself as an independent and conservative Democrat.

What's more, he has been campaigning more on his record as governor from 1982 to 1986, where he was generally deemed a success, than as senator, where he's had less to brag about in his first term.

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