SETTING the stage for what could be the most bitterly fought Senate election in the United States this year, retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North captured the Republican nomination in Virginia over the weekend.
A sharply divided GOP convention picked Mr. North over his Republican rival, former Reagan budget director James Miller III. The colonel then launched a stinging attack against President Clinton and the Democratic Congress. He castigated Washington as a city filled with ``arrogant, self-serving'' politicians who ``sacrifice our childrens' future'' by kowtowing to lobbyists and supporting huge budget deficits.
``Our campaign is about changing that,'' he vowed.
North, whose conviction on felony charges in the Iran-contra affair was overturned on a technicality, alarms many middle-of-the-road Republicans. The state's most popular Republican, Sen. John Warner, refuses to support him. But North's candidacy thrills GOP conservatives, including many evangelical Christians.
Democrats will choose their nominee in a June 14 primary. But two candidates could bolt the major parties and run as independents. The result could be an unpredictable, four-way race.
The probable contenders:
* Colonel North, backed by Gov. George Allen (R) of Virginia, and a large segment of GOP regulars.
* Sen. Charles Robb (D) of Virginia, who is favored to win this month's party primary despite political opposition generated by reports of his own moral lapses.
* Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), who has a long-standing feud with Senator Robb, and who is expected to run as a Democratic-leaning independent. He could hurt Robb, especially by drawing normally Democratic votes out of the black community.
* Former Republican candidate for governor Marshall Coleman, whose supporters have gathered 20,000 signatures to put him on the ballot. Senator Warner is expected to support Mr. Coleman.
Ironically, the Robb-Wilder feud could play into the colonel's hands, and even put him into office. In fact, analysts say a four-way split, with North picking up a hard-core vote of perhaps 30 to 35 percent, may be the best route for a North victory.
Supporting that theory, North supporters outside the Republican convention hall in Richmond over the weekend were reportedly signing petitions to put former Governor Wilder on the ballot.
North, who has accumulated some wealth since leaving government service and now lives on a $1 million estate near the Shenandoah River, attracts a wildly enthusiastic following.
His appeal is patriotic, pro-family, pro-religion, anti-tax, anti-big government, anti-politician. He speaks to voters who feel forgotten by government. He attacks the media, Hollywood, and Eastern elites.
Though he spent $6 million winning the GOP nomination (with much of his support coming from out-of-state), North so far is unable to still his critics even within his party, such as Senator Warner and Mr. Coleman.
Even so, Democrats are expected to find North a well-financed, charismatic, and disciplined foe who cannot be written off, even by those who once viewed his appeal as too narrow.
At the convention, North showed that he will give no quarter to his opponents - Senator Robb, President Clinton, and the congressional establishment. Some highlights of his acceptance speech:
* ``Virginia is sick and tired of a Congress run by back-slapping good old boys and a White House governed by a bunch of 20-something kids with an earring and an axe to grind.''
* ``I've got news for [Washington's powerbrokers]. They will never see Ollie North crawling up the steps of Capitol Hill to kiss their big, fat rings.''
* ``Today we launch a battle to free our government from the tyranny of professional politicians.''
* ``We are besieged by a liberal government that is up to its caboose in the peccadilloes and personal distractions of its president.''
* ``There is something terribly wrong in a government that worries more about the plight of some fish than it does about hard-working families....Working men and women, the traditional family, we're the real endangered species in this country.''
* ``Our government is being held hostage - a captive of the potentates of pork who live high on the hog off of big government. Well, I know something about liberating hostages.''