North Must Win GOP Doubters As First Step

RETIRED Lt. Col. Oliver North could become United States Sen. Oliver North after this year's elections. But first he must win over the doubters in his own party.

Republican national chairman Haley Barbour predicts Colonel North will succeed. But Mr. Barbour admits he is ``very concerned'' that the GOP vote in Virginia could split over North's controversial candidacy. The result? Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia could slip back into office with only a plurality vote, just as President Clinton captured the White House with only 43 percent support.

Mr. Barbour told a Monitor breakfast meeting with reporters that despite recent party in-fighting, North's campaign will attract the overwhelming majority of Republican voters. But he concedes that the defection of even a few thousand GOP votes ``could be the difference.''

North, who was involved in the Iran-contra arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels at the Reagan White House in the 1980s, has enthusiastic, strong support from conservatives across the country. His campaign spending, which already reached $6 million, could set a record in the Old Dominion.

GOP divisions over North are so deep, however, that Virginia's most popular Republican, Sen. John Warner, has refused to support his campaign. Marshall Coleman, a former GOP candidate for governor, may run for the Senate as an independent, and could siphon off North votes.

At the root of the problem is North's 1989 conviction on three criminal charges: obstruction of Congress, destroying White House documents related to the arms sales, and receiving an illegal gratuity.

The documents conviction was later thrown out by an appeals court. The other two charges were eventually dropped when appeals judges ruled that witnesses against North may have been tainted.

In the long run, Barbour says it will be President Clinton's and Senator Robb's unpopularity that will be critical for voters, not North's old legal troubles.

Barbour says the Clinton downdraft already is helping Republicans in the California Senate and gubernatorial races and the Texas governor's contest.

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