ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Backing away from earlier criticism of religious conservatives, Colin L. Powell praised the political efforts of the Christian right yesterday and said he was "totally supportive" of their mission.
"I think the Christian right and Christian Coalition should be applauded for their efforts to make America shape up again and start concentrating on the family, restoring the nuclear family and putting structure back in our schools," Mr. Powell said in an interview in his office outside Washington.
Mr. Powell's comments placed him closer to religious conservatives than he has generally seemed in the past. The remarks suggested that he is looking for support from a potent force in the Republican Party as he considers a run for the presidency next year.
Mr. Powell also suggested he was warming to the idea of a presidential run. He said that, although he may not yet feel the "fire in his belly" for the presidency, "there may be a pilot light burning."
The retired general and Persian Gulf war leader indicated yesterday that he would be comfortable running as a Republican, even though many of his views on social issues run counter to today's more conservative GOP.
"What I have found over the last two years of traveling around, and over the last couple weeks, is that the Republican Party is broader than one might think just from reading the press accounts," said Mr. Powell, who last weekend began a major publicity blitz and book tour to coincide with the publication of his memoirs.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, which has gained increasing influence in the Republican Party, said Mr. Powell's latest comments suggest "a real evolution as he's gotten out there and gotten a feel for the lay of the political land."
"He recognizes the religious conservative community is too large a bloc of voters to dismiss out of hand," Mr. Reed said yesterday.
Mr. Powell has said he has pretty much ruled out running as a Democrat. Although he is still considering running as an independent, he has said that if he decides to enter the race, the best way to do so would be as a Republican.
Throughout the interview, Mr. Powell also corrected himself several times when he used "we" to refer to the Republican Party. In fact, Mr. Powell appeared to go out of his way to offer praise for the party's leading conservative, Newt Gingrich. He said the House speaker understands that some of the GOP's policies could be sending a message to the black community of "harshness and a lack of understanding."
Asked about the religious conservatives in the party, Mr. Powell was conciliatory, in contrast to previous statements when he has referred to unnamed "extremists" on the religious right.
In Friday's interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, he said that, "Religious groups, as with any other group, have a right to present their views, but I'm a little nervous when they go over the line and try to push too hard a religious agenda into a political agenda."
What's more, as he has started revealing his policy positions, Mr. Powell has portrayed himself as a centrist whose views, especially on social issues, collide with those of conservative Republicans. He has said, for instance, that he supports abortion rights and opposes organized school prayer.
Such positions, combined with his initial wariness about the religious right, garnered criticism from conservative leaders who expressed doubt that Mr. Powell could win the GOP nomination.
Mr. Reed last week described Mr. Powell as a "Rockefeller Republican" and predicted that his support of abortion rights and his opposition to organized school prayer would make him unsuitable to most Republican voters.
Similarly, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which claims 31,000 churches in its membership, said last week, "He has totally ruled himself out" as a candidate the Christian conservative movement could support. "He does not carry the message of the pro-family community."
Yesterday, Mr. Powell stressed the common ground he shares with the conservative pro-family community.
Of his comfort with the religious conservatives in the Republican Party, he said, "They have a positive message to deliver, they have an agenda that they're pushing in the best old-fashioned tradition of American democratic politics. I respect their points of view."
He said that he, like some Republicans he's had contact with, disagrees with such groups over some of the legislation they seek that would not fit with his own views on issues such as abortion.
"But in terms of what they're trying to achieve," he added, "I am totally supportive -- bringing the family back to the center of American life."
Mr. Reed said he was heartened by Mr. Powell's comments. "He maintains honest disagreement with certain policy positions, but recognizes that if he desires to be on the Republican ticket in '96 or beyond, there has to be a dialogue based on mutual respect."