Through the eyes of a Washington outsider, a Somali student named Harbi Osman who lives in Alexandria, the saga of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North looks utterly strange and strangely American.

"First you say, 'We did wrong, we have to investigate.' And then you fall in love with the man you're investigating," Osman said last week. "That's the American style. North is a good-looking guy, he goes on television, and people love him. It's like Ronald Reagan or Tom Selleck."

Or perhaps, as a Georgetown University English major suggested, North is "Joe Stud." A Maryland computer worker likened him to the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur. A bartender in the District said it all on her lapel: "Ollie in '88."

Across the Washington area, from bowling alleys to shopping centers to neighborhood firehouses, Oliver North is on the televisions, and seemingly on the minds and the tongues, of almost everyone.

Calls of support for the former White House aide, who was fired after revelations that he diverted profits from Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan rebels, have flooded local lawmakers. His testimony before the House-Senate Select committees on the Iran-contra affair, which enters its fifth day today, is doing better in television ratings than the soap operas it preempted. Everywhere, it seems, someone is anxious to explain just who, underneath it all, this guy North seems to be.

In spot interviews last week with 44 residents of Maryland, Virginia and the District who were asked a dozen questions about the lieutenant colonel, there were varied opinions of what North has said under oath and what he did. About a quarter of those interviewed said they were not paying attention to the hearings. Some said they did not quite believe him, some said they did not trust him at all, and others said they disdained his politics.

But on one point there was widespread agreement: Washingtonians like Ollie North. Beneath that ribbon-laden uniform, people say, there is the kind of fellow one would want living down the block. And almost as if he were a neighbor, a lot of just-plain-folks are pulling for North to walk away from his congressional grilling a winner.

Indeed, this feeling seemed to transcend political ideology, igniting a gut-level, cheer-for-the underdog populism. With many of those interviewed, the White House and Congress are coming out losers, while North, viewed as a villain a few weeks ago, is emerging as the media star -- an instant pop culture figure.

"You know, the little guys always take the fall," said 76-year-old Daisy May Wade, a former domestic worker who watched the hearings last week at her house on Seventh Street NE. "I think he's getting a raw deal.

"I really think he is sincere about what he said he was doing. He is honest, and that's important in a job. I'm proud of him."

"North was caught between a rock and a hard place," said Wayne Jackson, 37, a salesman at Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg who lives in Frederick, Md. "I'm pretty sure there is a cover-up. It's unclear how far up it goes, maybe all the way to the president.

"I sympathize with" North, said Jackson, a retired Air Force man who has watched the hearings while working in the television department at a J.C. Penney store. "I can relate to him. He was just doing his job, and it was hard to tell where his job stopped."

This surge of support, which according to the latest national polls is spreading across the country, is not restricted by demographics or philosophy, although interviews found that it is decidedly more enthusiastic among North's fellow conservatives. Among those who say they are critical of President Reagan's foreign policy, feelings about North usually take the form of grudging compliments.

"I think if he chose to run for president he could get the vote of the people. He's going to be a folk hero," said Sue Lake of Fairfax County, a government worker who is married to an Air Force officer. Lake said she supported North's plan to aid the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries or contras.

"I know the military well, and he seems to be a pretty typical Marine colonel to me," Lake said. "Most Marine officers follow the rules very, very strictly. They do what they're told. It's hard to believe that anyone thinks a lieutenant colonel has the power to do some of the things they're blaming on him."

Sonya McQueen, a 30-year-old dental technician from Northeast Washington, called North "honest to a point. He doesn't want to be a snitch, so he's trying to answer as best he can.

"He admits he did things wrong, but he was just doing his job. If I was in the same situation I would do the same thing."

Whatever Washington residents feel about North, they seem to feel it deeply and say it publicly. The offices of Virginia's U.S. senators, John W. Warner and Paul S. Trible Jr., both conservative Republicans whose constituents include thousands of military personnel, have logged hundreds of calls supporting North. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat whose Prince George's County-based 5th District is one of the most heavily Democratic in the area, received scores of phone calls, which he said are running 2 to 1 in favor of North.

Reggie Sanders, the news assignment editor at WJLA-TV (Channel 7), which has aired North's testimony in its entirety, said he has fielded a dozen requests for North's address from people who want to contribute to his legal defense fund.

"There was a big shift as {North's} testimony went on," said Tom Doerr, WJLA's executive news director. "On the first day we got somewhere around 50 calls saying, 'Where are my soap operas?'

"But then we began to get calls complaining about North's treatment. By the end of the week, the calls were overwhelmingly in favor of North." Doerr said that WJLA's daytime ratings have gone up slightly since North took the stand.

Those who dislike North intensely are a hearty, vocal minority. Jabeen Bhatti, an art history major at the University of Maryland who lives in Gaithersburg, compared North to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, saying each was "blinded by patriotism." Anthony Muse, 37, a Chevy Chase computer consultant, said North had set himself and his ideas above the law.

"I have to obey the law," said Muse, interviewed at the tennis courts near 16th and Kennedy streets NW. "He admits to breaking the law and is not regretful about it." North has denied breaking the law but has admitted hiding from lawmakers his efforts to finance the Nicaraguan resistance.

Muse described North as "a very capable fellow . . . , good at carrying out his orders. People think he embodies what America stands for, but I don't trust him because he's a snake. Anybody who would lie to Congress for the sake of a covert operation should not be respected."

"I think it stinks," added Frank Young, a 48-year old Army veteran and a resident of the District's Kalorama Heights who was buffing his car near Carter Barron Amphitheater Saturday afternoon. North "was dead wrong. There is no sense in having a Constitution if you're not going to follow it."

But for the most part, North -- the person, if not the political figure -- got rave reviews. "He's the Beaver!" said Mary Lynn Hardesty, a Pennsylvania tourist visiting Alexandria's Old Town, referring to the fresh-faced hero of television's "Leave It to Beaver." "He does seem like the All-American boy. He's so quiet, and then he comes back with a few smart remarks."

At a D.C. fire station in Brookland, Capt. Gene Perticone leaned against an engine and said in response to questions posed to all of those interviewed: "I would hire him. I would be happy if a guy like North dated my sister."

Hans Schmellankamp, who was shopping at Lake Forest Mall Friday, said of North, "He's down to earth, he's personable. He's got a good sense of humor, especially when he said that he didn't do his job well enough when he had to shred the paper." Schmellankamp added that he could see North "doing a Coke commercial someday."

Like a number of those interviewed, Gordon Hagan of Darnestown in western Montgomery County has changed his opinion of North as a result of the hearings.

"Everyone was down on him," said Hagan, a retired IBM engineer. "Now I've changed 180 degrees. Now he's an American folk hero instead of a bum."

Al Lipscomb, a 48-year-old retired Air Force sergeant, took time out from shopping at the post exchange at Alexandria's Cameron Station to talk about North. "I've been watching the hearings every day," Lipscomb said. North "strikes me as an honorable man doing the best he can."

"I think he's holding back some things to cover his own behind. He was willing to be the fall guy, but when everybody started to desert him he had to {cover himself} a little bit. But what he does say, I find believable."

Lipscomb was also struck by North's devotion to his loved ones in the face of terrorist threats. "I have a wife and three kids, and I like the idea of how he was trying to protect his family," Lipscomb said. "I don't mind him accepting a security system. Any family man would be doing the same thing."

Jim Riley, 23, who works for Techtronics Computer Co. in Mount Airy, just over the Montgomery line in Frederick County, described North as bright, honest and tough. "I'd hire him because he knows how to follow orders," Riley said.

"I know it will be him that takes the fall and not the people above him."

In the Colonel Brooks Tavern in the District's Brookland neighborhood, Joe Kelly -- a writer, actor and sometime plumber -- saw North as a terrific television performer. "Good voice, poised and daring toward the media," Kelly said. "He has great control. He works an audience well."

Few of North's fans, however, were as ardent as Byrdie Edwards, a 20-year-old college student from Bladensburg, who described North's congressional inquisitors as "the main jerks asking him all the questions."

"I think he's gorgeous," she said at a bookstore in Landover Mall. "He's an incredible human being. He's confident and smart. And he looks really good on TV."

For Edwards, North could be summed up in one word. "He's cool," she said. "He's what 'cool' means."

Staff writers Christopher J. Georges and Peter Pae contributed to this report.