Ollie's big bucks may snatch Senate seat

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The Independent Online
WIN or lose his Virginia Senate battle next month - right now it looks as if he could win - Oliver North, convicted of Iran-Contra offences, is already guaranteed a place in the record books. By today, his aides say, he will have raised dollars 17.8m ( pounds 10.6m) for his campaign, the most money raised by a non-presidential candidate in the political history of the United States.

As polling day on 8 November approaches, Mr North's drive to unseat Charles Robb, the incumbent Democrat and a fellow former Marine, resembles ever more the bid by the disgraced Marion Barry to recapture the mayor's job in Washington DC. Both have been crucified in the media and vilified by the establishment. But the North campaign prospers regardless, as did Mr Barry's.

The fund-raising figure, eclipsing the previous dollars 17.7m record set by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina in 1990, is one sign of how well Mr North's relentless anti- Clinton, anti-Washington campaign plays in a basically conservative state. Another is the narrow but clear lead he has opened up over his rival.

According to a Mason- Dixon poll yesterday, Mr North is ahead by 37 per cent to 34 per cent. The worthy but uninspiring independent candidate, Marshall Coleman, runs a distant and largely ignored third with 16 per cent - proof of how in politics, too, the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity at all.

Conceivably, the Virginia race could be the one that decides whether the Democrats retain control of the Senate. But however momentous, the choice offered the state's voters by a blizzard of negative television advertising boils down to a simple unedifying question: which is worse, cheating on your wife or lying to Congress?

The low point thus far of the North media campaign has been a television spot featuring a Playboy cover adorned with an unclothed Tai Collins, the former Miss Virginia, who claims to have had an affair with Mr Robb. He maintains their tryst went no further than a nude massage in a New York hotel room. 'Only a massage?' asks the advertisement.

The Robb camp has hit back by labelling Mr North, convicted of perjuring himself over Iran-Contra, as a chronic liar. To which the former National Security Council staffer responded on Wednesday by wheeling out David Jacobsen, a former hostage in Lebanon, who claimed that Mr North's arms dealings with Iran speeded his release in 1986. Unabashed, Mr Robb enlisted the wife of another hostage, Jeremy Levin, who said Mr North's illegal endeavours made matters 'incredibly worse'.

Tonight may bring another twist when President Bill Clinton and Virginia's former Democratic governor, Douglas Wilder, appear at a Robb fund-raising meeting.

Under intense pressure from the White House, Mr Wilder is expected to endorse a man who hitherto has been his sworn foe. In return, the word is, that he has been promised a high-profile ambassadorship in Africa.