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ELECTIONS '94 : Robb Defeats North in Virginia's Scandal-Scarred Senate Competition : Politics: Incumbent Democrat survives close race where voters disliked both candidates. The African American vote was the key to victory.


McLEAN, Va. — Virginians, faced with what many voters regarded as a choice between bad and worse, said no to Republican Oliver L. North on Tuesday and allowed Democrat Charles S. Robb to keep his Senate seat despite a lackluster first term and sullied personal reputation.

With 99% of the vote counted, the incumbent led North 46% to 43%. Republican J. Marshall Coleman, running as an independent, had 11% of the vote.

On a night when many Democrats nationally went down to defeat, the outcome in Virginia was both an important victory for Robb's party and an ironic anomaly for a candidate with such vulnerabilities.

"It was hold your nose and vote for the one who you dislike less," said John McGlennon, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary. "Stick that clothespin on and pull the lever."

The race was neck and neck until the last days of the campaign, when former First Lady Nancy Reagan denounced North as a liar and the candidate blundered by attacking Social Security during an appearance at a nursing home.

Key to Robb's success was the turnout of African American voters, whose support of Robb soared after his longtime Democratic nemesis, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, stopped attacking him and started campaigning for him during the last weeks of the contest.

"Doug Wilder has finally delivered for him," said political scientist Mark Rozell of Virginia's Mary Washington College. "But a Robb victory does not change his scandalous past. More than anything else, I see the results as a rejection of Oliver North. Robb could not have won reelection without opposing a controversial, scandal-tainted nominee like Mr. North."

Most Virginians were unenthusiastic--or worse--about both the candidates put forward by the major political parties.

North, this year's most controversial symbol of the anti-Establishment politician, had sought a niche in history as the first person to be elected to Congress in spite of a conviction for lying to it.

As an aide to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, North ran the illegal Iran-Contra operation and was convicted of shredding classified documents, accepting illegal gratuities and lying to congressional investigating committees. Those convictions were later overturned on a technicality.

Robb, once a highly regarded governor, tarnished his reputation through admitted extramarital dalliances and other morally questionable behavior. After Virginians gave him 71% of the vote last time around, their affection for the son-in-law of former President Lyndon B. Johnson dwindled steadily.

"These are the two most unpopular party nominees in this state's history," said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. "It's an embarrassment. Virginia is very sensitive about it."

Voters expressed precisely the same sentiments. "Robb's the lesser of two evils," said Monika Talwar, 24, an information specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "I think Robb's a sleaze. The stories about his character concerned me. But I'm more concerned in seeing North defeated. Basically, I'm strongly anti-North, and I thought this was one election where my vote could make a difference."

"I don't like the choice," said Larry Pulliam, who wore his Air Force uniform to his northern Virginia polling place. "One guy was convicted for Iran-Contra, the other was seen at drug parties when he was governor. "If there were a none-of-the-above, I'd probably vote for him."

Rozell called the result a rejection of North rather than an endorsement of Robb. "Robb was the devil they knew," Rozell said, "but Oliver North was just too dangerous for most Virginia voters."

An elated Robb greeted his supporters at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in this Washington suburb Tuesday night with a throaty: "How sweet it is!"

After thanking abortion-rights groups, gay and lesbian organizations and African American groups for their support, Robb said: "This election was a very important message to the nation. Virginia will continue to be inclusive. Virginia will continue to be tolerant rather than intolerant."

While candidates across the nation--Democrats and Republicans alike--tried to distance themselves from President Clinton during the campaign, Robb sought his help--and thanked him in his acceptance speech.

"I am proud to stand with our President," Robb said to the crowd, which roared loudly enough to drown out the rest of his statement.

North, appearing in a Richmond convention hall to concede defeat, pointedly offered no congratulations to Robb. Acknowledging that he felt "hurt" by the results, he told his supporters: "My loss is not your defeat if you will persevere."

North had been forced to campaign in the teeth of opposition from some prominent Republicans. Ronald Reagan expressed his indignation at North's campaign in a letter published early in the election season. And just 10 days before the election, Nancy Reagan denounced the man who had once worked for her husband.

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