Fueled by accusations of extramarital sex, contempt of Congress, conservative intolerance and liberal permissiveness, Virginia's top fall spectacle has turned into a testimony to the power of direct mail.
As the former Marine lieutenant colonel and darling of conservatives challenges incumbent Democratic Sen. Charles Robb, his formidable campaign is fueled by a direct mail machine the likes of which may never have been seen before in a statewide race.
Already, political observers have declared that Col. North likely will raise $15 million to $20 million or more by Election Day; that would shatter the old record of almost $18 million established in 1984 by Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.).
Item: In the six weeks ended June 30, the North campaign spent $227,651 on postage, according to documents on file at the Federal Election Commission. (Col. North won the GOP nomination at the party convention that ended June 4.) That amount of money is enough to send out upwards of 1.75 million pieces.
Item: In the same six-week period, 24 direct mail marketers working for Col. North received nearly $1.2 million, according to FEC records. That sum includes $626,159 to Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct mail guru of the early 1980s.
Item: In the same six weeks, the campaign received nearly $2.6 million in contributions.
That was slightly more than the Robb campaign had raised through the first six months of the year-$2.5 million.
"To raise the $8 million that he's received to date, the campaign, which doesn't have a whole lot of big contributors, probably had about 250,000 to 300,000 donations," said Tony Fabrizio, a partner in Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, Alexandria, a Republican political consultancy.
"If he's getting a 2% response rate from both the house file and prospecting lists, then the minimum they'd need to have mailed so far is 10 million pieces. Most Senate races won't do in total what he's mailed out so far. They're doing big, big, big volumes of mail," said Mr. Fabrizio, a political pollster who did work with Mr. Viguerie for the American Conservative Union in 1993.
The North campaign's extensive bankroll is expected to power an expensive and high-profile ad assault in the fall. Already, the campaign has aired an upbeat spot, from Murphy, Pintak & Gautier, McLean, in which wife Betsy extols her husband's virtues.
The Robb campaign has also aired only one spot to date, a similarly positive ad that enumerates the senator's accomplishments. The spot is by Doak, Shrum, Harris, Carrier, Devine & Associates, Arlington.
The Virginia U.S. Senate race certainly has more than its share of color. Sen. Robb and Col. North carry the banners of their respective parties, but both have weak points. That has drawn two independent challengers into the race-former Gov. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, and Marshall Coleman, a Republican who's a former state attorney general.
A pundit recently referred to the Virginia Senate race as a battle between someone who's technically not a liar vs. someone technically not a felon. That reflects a public acknowledgment by Sen. Robb of extramarital sex but not intercourse. And a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited a technicality to overturn Col. North's conviction for lying to Congress in the Iran-contra affair.
A mid-July poll by Virginia Commonwealth University's Survey Research Laboratory showed Col. North and Sen. Robb with 29% each, followed by Gov. Wilder with 16% and Mr. Coleman at 11%.
Based on projections by the campaign and outsiders, by the time the campaign ends, the North machine will have mailed out 20 million or more pieces of Ollie-boosting mail.
There are slightly more than 1 million households in the state of 6.3 million, according to the North campaign, and about 3 million registered voters.
For comparison, the National Wildlife Federation mails out about 50 million pieces annually nationwide, said Chet Dalzell, director of public relations at the Direct Marketing Association. "Twenty million is no tiny mailing," he said. "Even for a cataloger, that's significant."
The campaign's direct mail operations are split into two parts, with the critical money-raising effort headed by the Viguerie Co., Falls Church, and a voter information side spread among several companies.
Campaign officials, including Mr. Viguerie, declined to discuss their direct mail operation, but Dan Hazlewood, president of a North campaign direct mail agency, agreed to talk, though only in general terms.
Mr. Hazlewood is president of Targeted Creative Communications, Alexandria, which specializes in voter information, not fund-raising.
"For North, the fund-raising is direct mail driven" Mr. Hazlewood said. "It's more important to him than most other candidates because of who he is and what the media and Congress have tried to do to him. There is a core of support for him in Virginia and around the country that helps him raise money."
The campaign's fund-raising success is all the more remarkable, Mr. Hazlewood said, because of the explosion in direct mail in recent years. "In the heyday of [political] direct mail-1979-82-any candidate who launched a direct mail fund-raising campaign could succeed," he said. "But the rules have changed because in any week people will get a solicitation for money from a political candidate plus something from the Public Broadcasting Service and however many others."
Part of the North success stems from the databases compiled from donors to his defense fund in 1987, and the Freedom Alliance, a non-profit group promoting conservative causes he formed in 1990.
David Gold is handling direct mail for the Robb campaign, and he begrudgingly acknowledges the North machine. "It seems to be very successful," said Mr. Gold, president of Gold Communications Co., Austin, Texas. "The packages they are sending out are what you'd expect from the radical right wing-I think the last offered a choice of two photos of North, suitable for framing, for the money sent in."
Mr. Gold, whose company handles both fund-raising and voter persuasion for Sen. Robb, said the scope of the North mail operation doesn't determine his strategy.
"It's an internal logic that determines what you do, not what the other side does," he said. "Oliver North is well-known nationally and that affects the size of what his mailing is, not ours."