"Rockefeller Republican" is not a phrase you hear very often these days. But in the 1960s, it was applied to those liberal-to-moderate Republicans whose most prominent leader was Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York.
These Republicans -- earlier called "the Eastern Establishment" -- were distinguished by their liberalism on race questions and by their willingness to support such social programs for the disadvantaged as public housing.
Those issues obviously are not on anyone's political agenda these days. But those views Powell has revealed so far in interviews or excerpts from his book make it plain that he falls into that moderate Republican category. He supports abortion rights, affirmative action and some modest gun control and opposes prayer in the public schools.
The implications if Powell decides to run for president are enormous.
First, it is clear that should the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff decide to compete in the primaries for the Republican nomination next year, it will be no walk in the park.
And now there is the certain prospect of resistance from the religious right and other conservative extremists because of his views on issues -- abortion rights, most obviously -- that they consider nonnegotiable. No one who knows him believes, for example, that Patrick J. Buchanan is going to sit by quietly and watch the party nominate someone with Powell's positions on abortion rights and school prayer.
There is, of course, always a chance that pragmatism will carry the day -- that is, that some of those on the far right will decide they would prefer a winner who didn't always agree with them to a loser who could be counted on to cross every "T" of conservative dogma.
Thus, although he described Powell's views as a "disappointment," Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed was careful not to rule him out entirely for the Republican ticket.
What is clear, nonetheless, is that Powell, running as a Republican, would have to make some accommodations in his views or face at least some defections from the party on the right. The alternative for Powell would be an independent candidacy. Opinion polls suggest that is still the hard way to run for president because there is enough residual inertia supporting the two-party system.
But the same polls show that at least one in three Americans thinks the time is ripe for a third party because of their great antipathy for the two major parties as they are constituted today.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Ross Perot polled just under 20 percent of the vote in 1992 despite a bizarre campaign and frequent displays of temperament that ordinarily wouldn't be tolerated in a presidential candidate.
By contrast, Powell is a potential candidate whose views seem to reflect the national consensus on touchy issues and one who has shown no personality quirks that might be self-defeating. Surveys show only about 5 percent of voters view him unfavorably.
It is impossible to guess now whether Powell could win the White House running as an independent, even given the climate of hostility toward politicians and the high regard in which he is held by most Americans.
So the operative question in the political community right now is whether Democrats or Republicans might suffer the most from Powell on a third-party line.
The conventional wisdom is that a Powell candidacy -- either on the GOP ticket or as an independent -- would be a serious and quite possibly crippling blow to President Clinton because it would cause mass defections by black voters. And it is true that it is those votes that provide the winning margins for Democratic presidential candidates.
But Powell as an independent also could be enormously attractive to independents and moderate Republicans who might move to him if they viewed the GOP as too tightly controlled by the cultural conservatives. In short, there is the possibility in a third party of a new coalition in American politics.