Ollie Under Siege

updated 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS STANDING ROOM ONLY IN THE POWELL VALLEY MIDDLE School auditorium in Big Stone Gap, Va., as Oliver North works the crowd of some 600 people. He poses for a photo with two older women, urging them to "Say Hillary!" as the camera clicks. Then he takes the stage and unreels his standard liberal-baiting speech—this time sparing his audience his usual swipes at "The New York Crimes" and CNN, "The Jane Fonda Network"—before ending with a crisp military salute.

The hair is gray, the square jaw a bit padded. But North, now 50 and vying for the Republican senatorial nomination against former Reagan budget director James C. Miller, still has the same cocksure charm that transfixed the nation during the Iran-Contra hearings almost seven years ago.

Underneath, though, North says he is feeling "numb." One reason is that on March 17 Ronald Reagan added his voice to the chorus of Republicans, led by Virginia's Sen. John Warner, who have disavowed the North candidacy. In a letter to former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, the former President wrote that he was "getting pretty steamed" about North's claims that Reagan had been in on the secret arms-for-hostages deal from the start. "I never informed him or anyone in my Administration to mislead Congress on Iran-Contra matters," said Reagan. The following day, North's close friend and personal pilot, Bobby Ray Venable, was killed after North's campaign plane—a twin-engine Swearingen Merlin IIIA—had engine trouble and crashed near Winchester, Va.

As for the Reagan attack. North claims it was a setup by Warner and other GOP power brokers who consider him an embarrassment. "I think people will see this for what it is," he says. "An attempt to mislead and abuse an 83-year-old man for whom I have enormous affection."

As well he should. Since the Iran-Contra hearings, North has parlayed his fame into a personal fortune. First came more than $10 million raised through direct-mail appeals for his successful Iran-Contra legal defense against three convictions, including obstructing Congress and shredding documents. Then there was a 1992 best-selling book, Under Fire, the bulletproof vest company he co-owns and close to 100 speeches a year at up to 25,000 a pop. He and his wife, Betsy, 50, who have four children, Tatt, 24, Stuart, 23, Sarah, 18, and Dornin, 12, now live on a 194-acre estate named Narnia—after the fantasy land of children's writer C.S. Lewis—overlooking the Shenandoah River in Bluemont, Va.

North, who is popular among Virginia's well-organized Christian fundamentalists, is still the overwhelming favorite against Miller at the Republican convention in June. If he gets the nod, he will probably face another decorated Vietnam Marine, incumbent senator Chuck Robb, 52, who made news with a letter of his own recently. In it he publicly admitted to "socializing under circumstances not appropriate to a married man" in the past, though he stopped short of acknowledging any extramarital affairs, and his wife, Lynda Bird, appears to have forgiven any indiscretion.

The prospect of two scandal-drenched Marines slugging it out in the trenches has some analysis predicting that a third-party candidate might join the race. "Voters," says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, "are disgusted with these two." Though polls show North trailing Robb by 14 points, North insists he will soldier on despite the turmoil. "It doesn't lake a toll on me," he says. "I know who I am. I'm the same old Ollie North."

MICHAEL YORK in Big Stone Gap

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