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Forsaking appeals from Ronald Reagan and other party heroes, the Virginia Republican Party on Saturday nominated Oliver North for the U.S. Senate, setting the stage for one of the year's most unpredictable and acrimonious contests.

North won 55 percent of the vote at the party's state convention to 45 percent for James Miller, an economist and a budget director in President Reagan's administration.A triumphant North took to the podium to the blaring theme from "Rocky," and, borrowing from President Clinton's anthem after the New Hampshire primary in 1992, proclaimed himself "the real comeback kid."

Then he put the White House on notice. "Today, we send the Clintons and their cronies a simple but unmistakable message," said North, as his wife, Betsy, looked on. "This is our government, you stole it, and we are going to take it back." He ridiculed the White House as teeming with "20-something kids with an earring and an ax to grind."

With balloon drops, blaring bands, and a huge American flag behind the stage, the Richmond Coliseum was transformed into the site of a grand spectacle. Indeed, party officials said the event drew nearly 15,000 delegates, more than any political gathering in American history and close to three times the number who were at the party's national convention in 1992.

But the celebratory air and outward unity was little more than a red, white, and blue facade. With his conviction, later overturned, on felony charges for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, North has emerged as one of the most polarizing figures in modern American politics. To his admirers, he is a brave patriot, while to his detractors, he is a duplicitous criminal.

North's candidacy - even before his nomination here - had thrust the state's Republicans into turmoil just a year after the party's jubilation over seizing the governorship for the first time in 12 years. Many delegates here vowed to follow the lead of Sen. John W. Warner and oppose North in November. But others accused the state's senior senator of disloyalty after he threw his support recently to the likely independent candidacy of J. Marshall Coleman. "Dump Warner" buttons were a popular item on the convention floor.

Well beyond Virginia, national party officials fear that North is such a divisive candidate that he could deprive the party of what appeared to be a clear shot at defeating the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Charles S. Robb, the onetime war hero who has been tarnished over the last few years by several embarrassing disclosures about his private life. The race is of such national interest that even former President Reagan, for whom North served on the staff of the National Security Council, thrust himself into the fray by writing that he was "getting pretty steamed about the statements coming from Oliver North." Reagan protested North's saying that he had lied to Congress under Reagan's orders. North later said the statements for which Reagan called him a liar had been intentionally misrepresented in the press.

With North expected to face Robb, the main event is likely to be between two former Marines having negative ratings that are among the highest of any candidates running for federal office this year.