Unrepentant Ollie North comes swaggering back

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - With their nomination at the weekend of a swaggering, unrepentant Oliver North to the US Senate, Republicans in the state of Virginia have set the stage for one of 1994's most unpredictable election contests, that has already split their own party and may well draw two well- known independent candidates into the fray, writes Rupert Cornwell.

Minutes after clinching his expected victory over James Miller, a former budget director at the Reagan White House and overwhelmingly favoured by the party's national establishment, Colonel North vowed he would launch a populist anti-Clinton, anti-Congress crusade to wrest the Virginia seat from the Democrat, Charles Robb, this November.

'This is our government and we are going to take it back,' the erstwhile Marine colonel and villain of the Iran-Contra piece told 14,500 Republicans at their nominating convention in a Richmond sports arena. It was perhaps the largest single such political gathering in the United States to date, and it was certainly among the most boisterous.

To the strains of the Marines' anthem and then the film Rocky, Colonel North stepped to the podium to proclaim himself 'the real comeback kid'. He derided President Clinton's White House as a nest of '20-something kids with an earring and an axe to grind'. But behind the delirium of his followers, and his own gung-ho patriotism, the fissures were evident.

His margin of victory of 55 to 45 per cent was far from the landslide the North camp had been predicting. Afterwards, many delegates indicated that they would follow the advice of John Warner, Virginia's senior Senator and the most popular Republican in the state, and oppose Colonel North this autumn. His crude and strident conservatism horrifies party moderates. Colonel North has also been disavowed by Mr Reagan, and former military colleagues like General Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

His nomination, morever, came despite poll after poll which showed that Mr Miller would have been far more likely to defeat Mr Robb. Instead the two main parties will field official candidates who come burdened with some of the highest negative ratings of any politicians in the land: Colonel North because of his felony conviction (which was later overturned on a technicality) in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Mr Robb because of allegations of sexual misconduct in his private life.

Almost certainly however, they will not have the field to themselves. The former Democratic governor, Douglas Wilder, a sworn foe of Mr Robb, is on the verge of entering the race as an independent. So too, from the Republican side, is Marshall Coleman, once Virginia's attorney general and already endorsed by Senator Warner.

In such a four-man contest, where a simple plurality would be enough to win, the outcome would be a complete toss-up. For all the baggage he carries, Colonel North, however, will be no pushover. His name-recognition is universal, and his fund-raising abilities, which are helped by the ever-more influential Christian right, are prodigious. At the present pace, he could top the record of dollars 12.5m ( pounds 8.3m) so far raised for a Senate election.

(Photograph omitted)