McLEAN, Va. -- The fans lined up for blocks, a few having spent the night outside on air mattresses as if queuing up to buy tickets for a rock concert.
They came by the hundreds yesterday morning to buy a book from Gen. Colin L. Powell as he kicked off his 25-city blitz -- and to witness what many believed was the start of a presidential campaign.
On the first stop of a four-week book tour that will take him from McLean, where he lives, to California and back, the Persian Gulf war hero was met with wild applause and encouragement to enter the race.
Speaking to a throng of national and international media outside Crown Books, the retired general and question-mark candidate said he would take the pulse of the nation as he traveled the country to promote his autobiography, "My American Journey," and then decide whether to seek the presidency.
"It's very important to me to find out what is on the minds of the American people," General Powell said. "At the end of the day, it is a decision I will have to make with my family. I have a deep concern about the country; I have some ideas about the country. I'll be sharing those ideas . . . and then I will find out after the book tour what the best way is to serve the country in some capacity."
The manager of the bookstore, where such luminaries as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have signed books in the past, said yesterday's crowd of about 1,700 was unprecedented.
Sitting at a desk on a raised platform, General Powell signed his name with a large, rugged flourish -- nearly 1,000 times within the first hour -- as the books and well-wishers flew by him. The store manager said he signed 3,312 books in more than four hours.
Outside, supporters, including some from two committees that have formed to build support for a Powell presidential candidacy, held "Powell '96" signs, distributed buttons and bumper stickers, and gathered names for a petition encouraging him to enter the race.
"This is history in the making," said Bill Dorsey, a member of one of the committees who runs a housing project for the mentally retarded in Washington.
"A president is being made right here, right now. How can he not run with all this? When have you seen anyone draw this many people for a book-signing? At this time, only a Colin Powell could do this." Asked what he liked about the four-star general who was the nation's first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Dorsey said: "Leadership. Leadership. Honesty. Ethics."
Many of those who waited in line to pay their $25.95 and get their moment before General Powell said they were attracted to his aura of leadership and integrity rather than any particular stand on issues.
"I get a strong sense that what you're seeing with Colin Powell is what you saw with Nelson Mandela," said Neil Lurssen, a South African writer living in Washington, who donned a "Powell '96" button even though he can't vote here. "People are seeking someone to bridge the gaps. I have the overwhelming impression Powell can override racial differences that divide people."
Jeff and Susie Kruse from Upper Marlboro, who spent their fifth wedding anniversary waiting in line four hours, said they would do it again. "I respect his career, what he's done in the past and what he could do in the future," said Mr. Kruse, a fellow military man.
Democrat Dave Mack of Arlington, Va., who had camped out with his brother since 1 a.m. the previous night to be first in line, said this was the first time he "could get behind a politician."
Dave Lindalh of Fairfax, Va., an assistant secretary of energy during the Reagan and Bush administrations, said he was supporting Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole for the presidency, but was ready to "get behind Powell 100 percent" should he decide to run.
In interviews during the weekend, General Powell has suggested that, if he does run, it is likely be as a Republican, rather than a Democrat or an independent candidate.
He said he believes it would be difficult to challenge an incumbent president. In an interview with David Frost, to be aired Sept. 29 on PBS, he said he has "a great deal of disappointment in my heart and head with the Democratic Party. . . . They're not alive and well, like the Republican Party is."
And, in an interview with CBS News on Friday, he said he probably would have a better shot of winning as a Republican than as an independent.
As he launches his book tour, General Powell has been surging in the polls. In the latest Time Magazine/CNN poll, General Powell, running as a Republican, would beat President Clinton by a margin of 46 percent to 38 percent. He also leads running as an independent, according to the poll.
If he doesn't run for president, General Powell, who received a $6 million advance for his book, will at least make a lot of money. The first day sales of the 613-page book, which hit the stands Friday, set a record for nonfiction books at Random House, said publicity director Ivan Held.
A bookstore in St. Louis ran out after the first day. The bookstore at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., sold out in 11 minutes, said Bill Smullen, executive assistant to General Powell. "I'm not sure we anticipated anything this large," he said, watching the crowds.
One handsomely dressed woman nearly beamed after having her book signed by the man she hopes will be the next president. "Best thing since Ronald Reagan!" she exclaimed as she got into her black Jaguar and drove off.