Once held up as a symbol of scandal and the government's covert excesses, former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was welcomed here Saturday by a state Christian group as a God-fearing hero, embattled patriot and potential U.S. senator.
North was greeted by two standing ovations and enthusiastic cheers from about 150 members of the Christian Coalition of California, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to build grass-roots networks for its conservative agenda.
Brandishing a pocket copy of the Constitution, North read the words of James Madison and spoke fondly of the nation's forefathers and their Christian beliefs. He also derided President Clinton's proposals and the Congress that grilled him during the Iran-Contra hearings.
"The stripes are still on my back from that imperial Congress," said North, 49. "And if we are going to change this country, we are going to have to change Congress."
That statement drew shouts from the Sheraton-Anaheim hotel audience urging North, the key figure in the arms-for-hostages scandal that rocked the Reagan Administration, to seek office. North, smiling, didn't comment on reports that he would challenge U.S. Sen. Charles Robb in 1994 for the Virginia Democrat's seat.
"I'm not here as a candidate, I'm just here as a husband of one and a father of four," he said. "That's a long ways off."
But for many coalition members, still stinging from Clinton's victory, future campaigns were the talk of the day. The two-day seminar, which included topics such as rebuilding the Reagan support base and organizing churchgoers into a voting bloc, is aimed at re-establishing conservative influence, said coalition executive director Ralph E. Reed.
The group, which sprung from televangelist Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential bid, has 350,000 members nationwide, about 22,000 of them in California, Reed said. He added that about one in five state members live in Orange County.
Although the coalition does not endorse candidates or parties, their agenda includes stands against abortion, gay rights, higher taxes and tax-funded arts. If they did endorse candidates, member Lance McNew, 21, of Cypress said North would nicely fit the bill.
"I would support him no matter what he decided to do," said McNew, who cradled five copies of North's autobiography, "Under Fire," under his arm, hoping for autographs. "If he decided to run for President, sure, I would support him. He fights for what he believes in, unlike our current President."
Clinton's purported lack of fight was one of North's main topics during his afternoon speech. In an address steeped in patriotic imagery, North quoted Abraham Lincoln, Patrick Henry and Ronald Reagan as he urged each audience member to convert five friends to the fight to make America more conservative.
"The Constitution says provide for the general welfare, it doesn't say provide welfare generally," said North, who heads the Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit foundation promoting a conservative ideology.
Afterward, North blanched at the suggestion that the extreme religious right alienated voters and splintered George Bush's supporters. "I think that's the perspective of big media, and it's wrong. . . . Bush lost because he was overconfident."