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On the Road, North Revels in Celebrity Status

October 2, 1994

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) _ Jane Whittington has reservations about Oliver North. Maybe, as he promises, he’d shake up the Senate and keep the fat cats honest. Or maybe he’s dishonest.

Her qualms didn’t stop Ms. Whittington from asking for North’s autograph, even as she told the Republican nominee she is on the fence.

″I think he has the potential to go farther, to someday be president or something,″ she said, looking admiringly at the small card North had pressed into her hands as he campaigned outside a Kmart.

″It sounds silly to say, but he is a star, you know? This would be the closest I ever came to a star.″

North disavows presidential ambition, but he’s pursuing incumbent Sen. Charles Robb’s seat with a few lessons borrowed from his old boss Ronald Reagan - a mixture of made-for-TV glitz and folksy, old-time religion. Robb, by contrast, has seemed stiff and formal.

North is by turns combative and charming. He bashes big government regulation and invokes faith and family.

″I’ll tell you what’s the most endangered species, and it’s not some snail: It’s the traditional American family,″ North said to lusty applause at a rally in Newport News last week.

The rally began with a prayer. North recited the Pledge of Allegiance, his walnut-sized, gold Marine Corps ring glinting in the midmorning sun.

Then it was off on a six-stop campaign swing in which North pumped the tattooed arms of shipyard workers, tousled the hair of wide-eyed children and slipped onto a plastic McDonald’s bench with Helma Coote and Yvonne Padgett of Newport News.

″You interrupted all my soaps when you were on television with all that trial,″ Ms. Coote told him, ″but I forgive you.″

North chuckled and handed her an autographed photo before striding across a mall parking lot toward a warehouse store.

Inside, North staged a bit of political theater as he carefully weighed several Stanley hammers before holding his choice before news cameras. ″Made in America 3/8″ he crowed.

Moments later, Chris Blair approached North and thrust a homemade religious T-shirt into his hands. She seemed near tears as North admired the shirt, then hugged her.

To his fans, North has an intensely personal appeal. They talk about him as though they know him, which many feel they do after watching his debut as the star witness in the televised congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal seven years ago.

North capitalized on his fame by publishing an autobiography and developing a lucrative sideline as a public speaker.

″He seems like a real person, a regular person,″ said Don Pederson of Williamsburg.

Although North has many detractors, no one on the Newport News trip took him to task for Iran-Contra or mentioned the misgivings of some fellow Republicans over North’s trustworthiness. The most serious criticism has come from Virginia’s senior senator, John Warner, who called North unfit to serve.

″He had to do something he was told to do,″ said Emmett McNulty, a burly man in a fishing hat and T-shirt emblazoned ″Coach.″ ″I think people should just let it lie, instead of always stirring things up.″

North’s shirts are always crisp, his ties dark and conservative, but he takes some pains not to look too natty. He rarely wears his suit jacket, and occasionally allows the round outline of a Skoal or Copenhagen tin to show through his back pocket.

And North’s shoe leather campaign actually takes place in cowboy boots, shiny black ones that peek from beneath well-tailored trousers or homey khakis.

The boots are from Texas, where North was born. He grew up in upstate New York and settled in Virginia while in the Marine Corps 20 years ago.

″I like to remind my friends in Texas that Sam Houston came from Virginia. I’m the exchange program,″ North said in a brief interview aboard the 32-foot RV nicknamed Rolling Thunder where North has spent much of his time since winning the nomination in June.

The RV is decorated outside with campaign bumper stickers and inside with a wrinkled Virginia map and a copy of the Constitution.

North travels with a retinue of clean-cut young men who merrily strew the campaign trail with stickers proclaiming, ″Ollie Was Here.″

One of the staples of his campaign routine is also one of the most extraordinary - he is a first-time candidate for public office who signs autographs.

North carries a stack of index cards printed with his name and campaign address. He stripes a highly stylized signature across hundreds of these cards in a typical day on the campaign trail.

Most days, North’s son Stuart stands at the candidate’s elbow with reinforcements, plus photocopied portraits. North asks the first name of a recipient, then uses their back to sign a personal note.

On Ms. Whittington’s card, he wrote: ″Jane, All the Best 3/8 Ollie North.″

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