LEBANON, N.H. -- When Harold Bouvier arrived at the Bean Gallery coffeehouse here the other day, he quickly slapped a blue Dole sticker on his shirt and announced to no one in particular: "I'll wear it till I hear from Colin Powell."
Mr. Bouvier got an appreciative laugh from a few of those waiting for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and someone shouted back: "You got it, brother."
Indeed, he does. If there is one dynamic that is clear in the New Hampshire primary campaign this fall, it is the possibility of a Colin Powell candidacy transforming the race.
At the moment, Mr. Dole is comfortably ahead of his nine #F vTC declared rivals. A new opinion poll out today shows him with 30 percent of the vote among likely primary voters, more than twice that for his closest pursuer, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, with 14.
But if the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is added to the list, the result is essentially a dead heat: Powell 23 percent, Dole 22 percent.
And the survey also found that 65 percent of these New Hampshire Republicans viewed Mr. Powell favorably, compared with 43 percent for Mr. Dole. The evidence of that sentiment is abundant.
The operative question is whether the interest is something that could be converted into an effective political operation for the Feb. 20 primary.
People 'waiting to hear'
There is a draft-Powell group, New Hampshire Citizens for Colin Powell, that has been functioning since last spring. Since Mr. Powell embarked on his book tour, "the number of calls have increased dramatically," said James Steiner, a Concord lawyer and one of the leaders of the group. "People are saying they've been waiting to hear from Colin Powell."
Among those waiting in the wings are some veterans of the New Hampshire primary wars, including former Gov. Hugh Gregg, whose son, Sen. Judd Gregg, is a leader of the Dole campaign. "I've been telling people that if the election were today, I'd vote for Dole," said Hugh Gregg. "But it's not today. Powell's the man, Powell's the man. If he runs, he'll be the next president."
Another Republican activist waiting for a Powell campaign is Elizabeth Hager of Concord, a moderate Republican who showed early interest in Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Gov. Pete Wilson of California because of their support for abortion rights.
But Ms. Hager recognizes that Mr. Specter has little or no prospect of winning the nomination, and she has cooled on Mr. Wilson as he has positioned himself "further and further right" on issues other than abortion rights. "He doesn't excite me enough to get involved," she said.
'My kind of politician'
But Ms. Hager sees Mr. Powell as the kind of candidate she has been seeking, because "he's not a sound-bite candidate" but instead is willing to take positions on issues not always popular with all Republicans. "From the interviews I've seen so far, he's certainly my kind of politician," she said.
A prominent Dole supporter who wished to remain anonymous sees something similar in a Powell campaign. "It would be refreshing," he said, "to have a candidate who wasn't trying to get ahead of the opinion polls every day by saying just the right thing."
Similarly, Harold Bouvier, the man who showed up for the Dole meeting here, is attracted by the idea of a different kind of candidate. "I don't agree with Powell on gun control, not at all," he said, "but I don't have to agree with someone on every single damned issue on some list you make up. We're looking for leadership."
To some degree, the potential for Mr. Powell here is a measure of reservations about the candidates now in the field. The conventional wisdom in the Republican political community is that Mr. Dole's base is fragile because it is made up largely of Republican officeholders and party leaders.
Thomas Rath, the Concord lawyer leading the campaign of former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, describes the Dole support as "a series of marriages of convenience, not marriages of conviction."
But Mr. Dole is still the only candidate here with a statewide organization worthy of the name. And as he showed when he turned up here to meet 100 or so supporters, the Senate majority leader has achieved the kind of celebrity that goes with being the front-runner -- and is handling it with aplomb and good humor.
Dole avoids absolutes
Mr. Dole is reassuring to some moderate Republicans because, despite his recent emphasis on his conservatism, he avoids the kind of absolutist ideology that has made Mr. Buchanan a player here. Asked about the federal legal assistance program, Mr. Dole says he favors cuts but adds: "I don't want to zero it out." Asked about fuel assistance grants, he promises "some kind" of help but points out that the program has developed some excesses in the past 22 years.
Mr. Alexander, despite running commercials and making an attention-getting walk across the state, is still running under 10 percent in the new poll, an improvement but still a distant third.
Mr. Rath argues, nonetheless, that Mr. Alexander "is in a position" to win when more Republicans begin making their choices. He said that he had just attended a breakfast with about 100 businesspeople at which a show of hands found only 19 of them have made a choice at this stage.
Mr. Alexander seems to be enjoying some success in following a strategy of depicting himself as the Washington "outsider," juxtaposed against the two senators leading nationally, Mr. Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who finished a weak fourth in the survey. Mr. Alexander's position apparently has been achieved partly due to the weakness of Mr. Wilson, an also-ran in the poll.
Mr. Wilson's decision to forgo competition in the Iowa precinct caucuses, coupled with reports of turmoil in his campaign staff, has damaged him with activists here trying to identify which challengers have national credibility. The press coverage of the California governor has been harsh and sometimes derisive.
In fact, Mr. Wilson's situation is precarious enough to give plausibility to speculation that he might fold his campaign. Said one longtime ally: "I think he's agonizing."
The candidate with the most solid base here seems to be Mr. Buchanan, who has a following of hard-line conservatives persuaded by the sincerity of his extremism.
"The one thing you know about Pat," said Dan Foley, a factory worker who lives near Gorham, "is that he's not a politician and means what he says."
But enough people are saying the same thing about Colin Powell to turn this campaign upside down.