WASHINGTON -- While Colin Powell walks on water across the country selling books, political professionals are asking the hard questions about whether and how his extraordinary celebrity can be converted into a success in politics.
The hardest of those questions is about race -- that is, whether a black candidate can be elected to the presidency. On the face of it, Mr. Powell's race appears to be no handicap. Opinion polls find the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with disapproval ratings of less than 10 percent with blacks and whites alike, roughly equivalent to those for Mother Theresa.
But poll-takers know that some white voters lie when questioned about elections involving a black candidate. Their surveys usually, although not always, find white support for a black higher than it turns out to be on Election Day.
A classic example was the election of Democrat L. Douglas Wilder as governor of Virginia in 1989. Late polls showed him leading by more than 10 percent but he ended up winning by less than 1 percent. Post-election analyses of the figures suggested that there was a block of 10 to 12 percent of white voters who would not vote for a black candidate under any circumstances.
Mr. Powell is, of course, a different dish of tea. He has no history as a black politician identified with liberal causes. Nor has he ever been a leader of protest movements like Jesse Jackson. So, the theory goes, he may be less frightening than other blacks might be in the eyes of some white voters.
But anyone knowledgeable about current U.S. politics knows that there has been a resurgence of racial resentment among working-class whites as memories of the civil rights movement -- and the reasons it was necessary -- have faded. That is obvious, for example, in the polling figures that show so much hostility toward affirmative action programs.
The flip side of this is the support Mr. Powell could expect from black voters, who usually make up about 10 percent of the electorate nationally and are a critical block in many southern and industrial states. It should not be forgotten that neither of the past two Democrats to win a presidential election carried a majority of white voters.
Some black leaders privately question whether Mr. Powell -- running as a Republican or as an independent -- would carry the 85 to 90 percent or more of the black vote that now usually goes to Democratic nominees. And Jesse Jackson is blunt in his questioning.
In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, Mr. Jackson is quoted as saying: "He's a phantom candidate. We can all have positive assumptions, but we still don't know . . . We do know that very right-wing white people can trust him. They can trust him to drop bombs. We know that Reagan could trust him.
"Historically, there's been this search -- whites always want to create the black of their choice as our leader. So for the white people this nice, clean-cut black military guy becomes something really worth selling and promoting. But have we ever seen him on a picket line? Is he for unions? Or for civil rights? Or for anything?"
The black vote
But political strategists have little doubt that, absent another African-American candidate in the field, Mr. Powell would win overwhelming among black voters. And that means he has the potential if he is on the 1996 Republican ticket, in either place, to cause a basic realignment of the electorate and, more to the point, sink Bill Clinton.
Whether Mr. Powell could do the same as an independent is another question. Although there is a predisposition toward the two-party system among many voters, there also has been a steady increase in those who favor a third option. So it is not far-fetched to imagine a coalition of black voters, independents alienated from both major parties and Republican moderates who may defect if their party takes too hard a line on such cultural issues as abortion rights.
In either case, one thing is clear: A Powell campaign is bad news for the Clinton White House.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.