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North's Star Rises in Virginia's Vitriolic Senate Race

THIN-FACED, serious, a middle-aged man looks into the camera front on. ``My name is David Jacobsen,'' he says. ``For a year and a half, I was held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon. I was bound and gagged, beaten and tortured, and for one reason: I was an American.''

Ghost images of Muslim militants flit across the screen. ``If it wasn't for Ollie North I would never have seen my family again,'' he says, alluding to the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages swap. ``Oliver North is one of the finest men I've ever known.''

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The spot is a hammer of emotion. Even some political professionals who dislike North intently consider it the best US campaign ad of this election season.

This is the kind of emotional punch - love it or hate it - that ``Ollie'' brings to nearly everything he does. It is one reason the gap-toothed North, the Iran-Contra poster boy, a man whose campaign veracity has been challenged by Ronald Reagan himself, stands a decent chance of toppling incumbent Virginia Sen. Charles Robb (D) in one of 1994's most visible races.

Apart from the appeal of his message (strong in southern and rural Virginia), apart from questions about his character (which come from conservative Republicans as well as ideological foes), North, the consumate outsider, is running a campaign better than the consumate insider.

``This fellow is waging a very professional, shrewd campaign,'' notes Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow.

Sure, it's an anti-incumbent year, and North may be the anti-incumbent archetype. When he decamps from his RV ``Rolling Thunder'' for another campaign stop, everything from his cowboy boots to his lopsided grin bespeak an average-guy ease.

His stump speech is replete with the rhetoric of political anger, '90's style - references to big government, big taxes, arrogant Washington, and the need for change.

Every Senate challenger worth his or her consultant's fee is trying to get this populist symbolism down. What sets North apart is his genuine star image. He's the Marine Colonel Who Could, the little guy who withstood the interrogation of the Iran-contra committee and became a folk hero overnight. North has already been through the fire of Sodom on the Potomoc - and lived.

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``North has more charisma than anybody on the far right of the Republican Party,'' says Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University professor of politics and history.

There is the matter of those convictions on felony charges of misleading Congress, shredding government documents, and accepting illegal gratuities. But one of those charges was reversed by a federal appeals court; the other two were set aside over concerns that his public congressional testimony may have tainted his trial.

North's response to voters who say he's fortunate not to be in prison is that he may have made mistakes, but he made them trying to ``save lives.''

Senator Robb, by contrast, may be the archetypal Washington incumbent. To begin with, he's rigidly formal. He seems like a man who'd wear a suit on a trip to the refrigerator for a midnight snack. He has his own ethics problems, centered on alleged attendence at drug parties and his own admittance that he received a nude massage from a woman who later graced the pages of Playboy.

Perhaps worst of all, he has a record. North can remain vague on issues while attacking specific Robb votes. Robb sometimes responds with complex explanations that make him sound like a Congressional Budget Office economist.

A recent campaign stop, for instance, found Robb attempting to explain his stand on Social Security, which revolves around increased taxation of high-income recipients. He used ``means-test'' and ``annuity'' in the same sentence, bewildering, it seemed, the local TV reporter who had asked the question.

Robb's evident energy belied recent reports that he is just going through the motions, but he did seem frustrated by weeks of defending a life in politics.

``Virtually everything I have said has been mischaracterized in this campaign'' he sighed as he shuffled back through fall leaves to his waiting car.

Indeed, the issue of truthfulness, or lack thereof, is one that North has continually confronted on the campaign trail. This is a candidate, after all, whose staff once had to issue a ``clarification'' after he spoke to a group of schoolchildren.

Earlier this year Ronald Reagan said in a letter that he was getting ``steamed'' by North's version of Iran-contra events. Others who have questioned Ollie's credibility include former Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Colin Powell, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, staunch Contra supporter retired Gen. John Singlaub, and former Navy Secretary James Webb.

North's supporters don't care about these charges. They see him as the can-do colonel who fought communism over the objections of bureaucrats and congressman. Leo Ribuffo says, too, large numbers of voters think lying about foreign policy is simply par for the Washington course.

Right now the race is too close to call. Polls taken earlier this month showed a dead heat, with both candidates garnering about 39 percent of the vote. Independent candidate Marshall Coleman hovers at around 15 percent.

One measure in which North is far ahead is cash on hand. By milking direct-mail lists compiled for his legal defense fund, North has raised some $15 million, as opposed to Robb's $4 million war chest.

``North is heavily bankrolled, far more than any politican ever has been in this state,'' says former Congressmen William Whitehurst, currently a professor at Old Dominion University.

But North has been troubled by a standard political amateur's mistake - flip comments, says Whitehurst. A crack about Bill Clinton not being his commander-in-chief raised some ire in a state saturated in military traditionalism.

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