WASHINGTON -- Whether he is embarking on a campaign tryout or merely a campaign to sell a lot of books, Colin L. Powell is about to become the man of the moment.
Four years after the Persian Gulf war turned the charismatic, rock-ribbed army general into a four-star celebrity, General Powell this week launches his autobiography, "My American Journey," with extraordinary, what some have called unparalleled, fanfare. A parade of magazine covers, interviews with everyone from Barbara Walters to Jay Leno and a 25-city book tour will take him through Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs as well as bookstores all across the country.
"It's going to pale in comparison to Cal Ripken," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart of the Powell spotlight, "but it will eclipse everybody else."
So begins the defining of one of the most intriguing military and political figures of the day -- not just with a bang but, fittingly, with an all-out ground and airwaves attack.
The Powell media blitz, kicked off with a lengthy excerpt from the 613-page book in this week's Time magazine and continuing through late October, is likely to answer many of the questions about the retired general's positions on issues and events in his career that are still a mystery.
But it is not expected to answer the key question that will hang over this book tour from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis to Seattle.
Will he run for the presidency next year, and if so, as what -- a Republican or independent?
That will be addressed after the book tour, General Powell says in this week's issue of Time magazine.
In the interview, General Powell says he still has not decided, but adds: "I think I have the skills to do the job."
He also talks about his philosophy. "If I do enter politics in whatever form, I would try to make it as open a candidacy and as large a tent as the Republicans are fond of saying they have," he says.
For now, Powell-watchers will have to rely on polls that suggest the possible candidate's popularity and chances. The most recent survey, published last week by Newsweek, shows that if General Powell were the Republican nominee, he would win 51 (( percent of the vote compared with 41 percent for President Clinton. As an independent, he would win 21 percent of the vote, trailing Mr. Clinton with 36 percent and Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner, with 33 percent.
His fans will also have to content themselves with learning about his conservative principles and prescription for healing the woes of the nation, as well as the inspirational story of his rise from the working-class tenements of the South Bronx to the apex of the U.S. military as the first black American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"People are wondering what Forest Gump Colin Powell stands for," General Powell says in Time. "Well, they're about to find out, as I deal with the various issues that are out there and I become a public figure again."
The book, for which General Powell received a $6 million advance, is mum on such issues as abortion, immigration, capital punishment and welfare payments to unwed teens.
But, in a book tour that is being covered much like a presidential candidacy, General Powell is likely to be grilled on those issues -- and more. Already, ABC-TV has announced that in Ms. Walters' hourlong interview on "20/20" this Friday, the war hero will offer his views on abortion, gun control, prayer in school and affirmative action.
In speeches he has given around the country since leaving the Pentagon two years ago, earning up to $60,000 per talk, he has filled in some of the blanks, casting himself as a centrist on most domestic issues: personally against abortion, but also against an outright ban on abortion; opposed to quotas, but in favor of some sort of affirmative action; a strong proponent of families and traditional values, but wary of the religious right.
"I don't find yet that I fit neatly into either party," General Powell told a group of mutual-fund industry leaders in May. "I have very strong Republican leanings on economic matters and international affairs matters, but I'm still a New Deal kid from Harlem and the South Bronx. Franklin Roosevelt's picture was in home."
Many Powell admirers believe that, during this month-plus of scrutiny, the public will be looking less at the details of General Powell's belief system and more at the whole person.
"People want to confirm that he's indeed an unusual person, and has the potential for being a strong, political leader," says public relations executive Sheila Tate, a former Reagan and Bush aide who would like to see General Powell in the vice presidential slot of the Republican ticket.
Already, he's getting the kind of treatment -- and dissection -- accorded a serious candidate. In the past several months, several critical stories have appeared, challenging the myth of .. the man and his military ideology -- what has come to be known as the Powell doctrine.
Recent articles have suggested that his doctrine -- that the armed forces should act only with decisive force, cautiously applied, and with the clear support of the American people -- is being questioned by Pentagon leaders who believe that often there are alternatives to such an all-or-nothing approach.
What's more, articles have painted General Powell as more of a skilled bureaucrat than a modern-day warrior, a risk-averse politico mainly guided by a desire to escape blame. Such portraits have called into question his actions and decision-making on the Persian Gulf war, the conflicts in Bosnia and Somalia, the Iran-contra controversy and even the Vietnam War.
Some have criticized, for example, his eagerness to end the gulf war, with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and much of his Republican Guard still in power. They argue that the quick exit left a dangerous situation in Iraq and Kuwait that the United States is still grappling with today.
While some believe that the scrutiny and criticism might be enough to turn General Powell away from a presidential run, his spokesman, retired Army Col. Bill Smullen says he doubts that would be an issue: "He's a guy who's got a thick skin."
And, for now at least, while General Powell is an author as opposed to a candidate -- traveling over much the same terrain as former Vice President Dan Quayle and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both of whom found the public relations value in combining book promotion with presidential flirtation -- the darts are likely to be overshadowed by the adulation.
General Powell is being honored at parties in Washington and New York. Such big crowds are anticipated for his book-signings that, along with the usual Borders and Brentan o's, he'll make appearances at a Wal-Mart in Fort Worth, Texas, and an auditorium in San Bernardino, Calif. He's also visiting African-American specialty stores where the $35 book will be promoted.
The air time he is receiving rivals that of the ubiquitous Ross Perot at the peak of his popularity in 1992: an hour with Ms. Walters this Friday, a three-part interview on NBC's "Today" show beginning the following Monday, as well as an hour with CNN's Larry King that night, interviews on National Public Radio and, later, a spot on the "Tonight" show.
"He puts himself right square in the middle of the political landscape for 1996," says Mr. Hart. "He might choose or not choose to participate, but he's placed himself in the middle of it by launching a blitz that would make the whole Republican field envious."