The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, October 29, 1994             TAG: 9410290234
SECTION: FRONT                    PAGE: A1   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: RICHMOND                           LENGTH: Long  :  107 lines


Oliver L. North on Friday shrugged off a scathing attack from former first lady Nancy Reagan, a slap to his U.S. Senate candidacy that prompted Vice President Al Gore to suggest North supporters suffer from Down syndrome.

``My mother told me a long time ago never to get into a fight with a lady,'' North, the Republican nominee, said of Reagan in a Washington, D.C., news conference.

In her first substantive interview in about three years, Nancy Reagan joined a long list of high-profile Republicans who have expressed outrage and contempt for North.

``I know Ollie North has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fantasy,'' she said Thursday evening at the 92nd Street Y in New York City before a crowd of about 650. ``And he lied to my husband and lied about my husband, kept things from him that he should not have kept from him.''

Former President Ronald Reagan, in a bombshell letter in March, said he was ``pretty steamed'' at North for insisting that Reagan authorized the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal. Reagan, silent about the matter since, did not return phone calls Friday.

Gore did not share the former president's reticence on Friday.

North ``is banking on the fact that he can raise enough money from the extreme right wing - the extra-chromosome right wing - to come in and buy enough advertising to just overwhelm the truth with blatant falsehoods,'' Gore said.

The vice president later apologized for his reference to Down syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by an extra chromosome.

``The phrase `extra chromosome' is insensitive and inappropriate and I regret using it,'' Gore said in a statement issued from Air Force Two, en route from Washington to Chicago. ``I did not intend it in the way some heard it, but that is no excuse, and I apologize.

`` The phrase `pathological liar,' by contrast, is completely appropriate as an accurate description of Oliver North - as Nancy Reagan's statement again made clear today.''

North spokesman Mark Merritt tried to capitalize on the vice president's gaffe, saying, ``He has no right to make fun of those suffering from Down syndrome. As vice president, he ought to have enough respect to keep them out of it.''

North, speaking at an evening rally, went further: ``Just this afternoon, the vice president of the United States disgraced his office by stooping down to get in the slime with Chuck Robb,'' he said, calling the remarks ``mean-spirited'' and ``a moral outrage.''

But Nancy Reagan was a difficult target for the North campaign, which has been plagued by weak support among mainstream Republicans who supported Reagan but are uneasy about North's less moderate candidacy.

North refused to shoot back at the former first lady. ``I don't think any of this stuff is going to hurt me,'' he said. ``. . . Nothing is going to change the fact that I believe Ronald Reagan is the greatest president of my lifetime.''

North's opponents, however, seized the opportunity to underline the fact that North lied to Congress to cover up his role in the plot to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon, with the profits from the arms sales diverted to Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

``This man has lied to everyone,'' former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder told a group of ministers Friday evening. ``You can't have a higher pronouncement'' than that from Nancy Reagan.

Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb said, ``She said it far more eloquently and straightforwardly than I have in many cases. I don't think I could improve on it.''

U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican and Virginia's senior senator, was equally speechless: ``Her strong, clear statement speaks for itself,'' he said Friday while on the road campaigning with independent Senate candidate J. Marshall Coleman.

``While the first lady's statement comes as a surprise, it is a logical follow-on to former President Reagan's earlier letter questioning North's integrity,'' Warner said.

Last March, Reagan said in a letter to former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev: ``I never instructed (North) or anyone in my administration to mislead Congress on Iran-Contra matters or anything else. And I certainly did not know anything about the Iran-Contra diversion. In fact, as you know, the minute we found out about it, we told the American people and called for investigations.''

In his best-selling book ``Under Fire: An American Story,'' North wrote he was ``convinced President Reagan knew everything.''

North was fired as a White House aide when Justice Department lawyers discovered his role in the scheme. North was convicted in 1989 of three felonies, but the verdict was overturned on appeal after a judge ruled that immunized testimony was used against him.

Other prominent Republicans have gone even further than former President Reagan in criticizing North. Among them are George Shultz, former secretary of state; Caspar Weinberger, former secretary of defense; William Colby, former CIA director; and Lawrence Eagleburger, former secretary of state.

Patrick M. McSweeney, chairman of Virginia's Republican party, said he was not concerned about Nancy Reagan's salvo.

``My impression of Mrs. Reagan is that she's the keeper of the flame, she's the protector of the legacy, and anything that would besmirch the legacy, I think she's going to take on, as a devoted, loyal wife would.''

But at least one rank-and-file Republican was more worried.

``I was stunned by Nancy Reagan's comments,'' said William Peach, a 56-year-old plumber and retired Navy man from Norfolk who has a North sign in his yard. ``Why now? What is she doing? Why is she saying that? Does she not want him to be senator? What is the purpose of her doing that now? I was stunned, I really was.''

Peach still intends to vote for North - ``very enthusiastically. Definitely.''