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Uncivil war in Virginia Senate race

There are two brawling ex-Marines in the Virginia Senate race, plus sex, God, lies, patriotism and a Playboy magazine cover girl named Tai Collins.

All the players are pretty well known to the people of the Old Dominion, even Collins, a former Miss Virginia dubbed by Playboy's headline writers in 1991 as "The Woman Senator Charles Robb Couldn't Resist."

Robb admits that he had a brief encounter with Collins a decade ago _ just a massage and some wine, he insists _ but it turns out that his rival in this year's campaign, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, couldn't resist her either.

"Why can't Chuck Robb tell the truth?" asked the announcer in a recent North commercial.

"About the cocaine parties . . . or about the beauty queen in the hotel room in New York. Robb says it was only a massage."

The Collins ad is one of the more striking developments in one of the tightest and most watched Senate races in the country. The Republicans see Robb as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in their quest for control of the Senate. And a Republican victory would mean even greater visibility for North, who has emerged as one of President Clinton's nastiest critics.

Polls show North barely ahead, as some in the state continue to be mesmerized by his anti-Washington rhetoric that was most dramatically symbolized by his misstatements to Congress on Iran-Contra.

Robb, meanwhile, is struggling to invigorate his dull campaign and rescue a career that once had insiders mentioning him as a presidential candidate. The former Virginia governor _ and son-in-law of the late President Lyndon Johnson _ is finally calling North a liar.

"Why do so many people who have worked with Oliver North say he doesn't tell the truth?" asks one Robb ad.

Character is front and center, and North has helped to put it there in the past several days. He has been fudging the facts on his role in the arms-for-hostages caper known as Iran-Contra, telling a group of schoolchildren and other groups that he didn't lie to Congress back in the mid-1980s. He also called President Clinton a "bonehead" and questioned the United States' military superiority in the Persian Gulf.

This week, North called for a federal investigation after reports surfaced that Clinton may have offered former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder an ambassadorship if Wilder would endorse Robb. Clinton on Friday denied the stories, and suggested that North couldn't tell the truth. Then Friday night, Wilder did endorse Robb.

That only gave North another opening.

"Bill Clinton is trying to salvage a liberal monopoly on political power," North told the Washington Post.

To be sure, North has a propensity to shoot his mouth off, and for a time this week his handlers shielded their mercurial candidate from the media. He still continued delivering speeches to his flock of true believers, who follow him for autographs and listen raptly to his message of patriotism, family, religion and the Constitution.

Chants of "Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, Ollie" greeted North this week at a meeting of the Christian Leadership Forum in Fredericksburg. He came armed with a Bible and the Bill of Rights. "I carry a copy with me," North said.

North says the Great Society and the social programs of the past 30 or so years have failed. "We now have in Washington today a federal government of the most liberal kind we've ever seen," North said.

He says he's not offended by the flying of the Confederate flag, he opposes gun control, opposes abortion rights and supports the desire of anti-abortion protesters to wave signs in front of clinics. He notes that one of his daughters was taught through home schooling and has made it to college, so he argues that tax credits are a good idea to help pay for private school.

North drew several standing ovations from the 600 or so people who came to the forum, especially when he explained that he really didn't lie to Congress about his role in Iran-Contra. All he did, he explained, was mislead a few lawmakers during an "informal, off-the-record meeting."

"The Washington Post and the New York Times have written on more than one occasion that I was convicted of lying under oath to Congress. I wasn't even charged with that, much less found guilty," North told the group.

The truth is that in 1989 a jury found him guilty of three charges, including aiding and abetting an obstruction of Congress. The charges were overturned on appeal.

North argues the obstruction charge is different than lying.

"I know the difference between right and wrong, and I know what it says in this book," North said, holding a Bible. "Those were not fully truthful answers. I did not reveal all that I knew.

"I may never be forgiven by the Washington Post," he said of his favorite media foil. "I know I'm forgiven where it counts."

North's trouble with the truth has led some former Reagan administration officials to publicly oppose his candidacy. It also is drawing the pointed pen of Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau.

In next week's strip, North says Virginians are sick and tired of revolving-door justice and seeing "the convictions of felons overturned on legal technicalities."

That describes North, of course. In the strip, North replies: "I didn't say what I just said! Anyone who says I did is a liar!"

Another jibe from the media may not hurt North among those who see in him the embodiment of a family man and patriot who was acting on behalf of his country.

"I support him, even if he is a liar, even if he is the worst vagabond on Earth," said 29-year-old Robbie Spencer, a Fredericksburg area pastor. "No, I'll take that back _ if he was the worst vagabond on earth I'd be voting for Robb."

The irony is, of course, that the same Oliver North who's popular with the family values crowd also aired the lurid Tai Collins advertisement. A Playboy spokeswoman says its the first time one of their covers has been used in a political ad, but that bit of history only lasted a few days because North said his wife objected to it.

"My best friend didn't like it," said North.

While North continues to flash his gap-toothed, confident grin, Robb remains a tense-jawed, desperate candidate. Once, Robb was the epitome of the sort of moderate, New Democrat whom the party thought could retake the White House. But then, the Collins story broke and he later came under investigation by a federal grand jury probing the wire-tapping of his fellow Democrat, but political enemy, former Gov. Wilder.

As a senator, Robb was loyal to his New Democrat ally in the White House. He supports abortion rights and voted for Clinton's deficit-reduction package last year and other Clinton programs.

Now, Clinton is trying to help. He attended a fund-raiser for the Virginia Democrat Friday night, and is recruiting Wilder to endorse Robb. Wilder had mounted an independent Senate campaign briefly.

Robb is also trying to, as he told the Washington Post recently, make clear to voters that he is the only thing standing between North and the Senate.

In ads, Robb notes that former President Ronald Reagan chastised North a few months ago for making false statements about Iran-Contra. "After lying about President Reagan and lying to schoolchildren, now Oliver North is lying about Chuck Robb," says the advertisement, which rebuts North's claim that Robb attended drug parties while governor.

North continues to raise questions about cocaine parties that Robb supposedly attended years ago and is ready to unload more negative advertising on Robb. "We have the battleship Missouri ready to go," North said this week.

And the money to pay for the ammunition. As of Sept.

30, North had raised more than $15-million for his campaign, compared with about $4-million by Robb. This week, North reportedly exceeded $17-million _ more than the record set four years ago by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

Like Helms, North's fund-raising strength is rooted in dramatic direct-mail appeals that have kept his name in front of the public. Some Democrats in Florida have even found themselves on one of North's mailing lists.

"When I am elected Senator," North's letter says, "Ted Kennedy and his liberal buddies are going to squirm like a can of worms on the first day of fishing season."