WASHINGTON -- As the speculation about retired Gen. Colin Powell as a possible 1996 presidential nominee has grown, the political focus has been increasingly on his ideology. From his recently stated views on abortion, welfare, gun control and affirmative action, he has been deemed a Rockefeller Republican, a man of what he calls "the sensible center."
Almost lost in all the hoopla over whether he will run, and if so as a Republican or an independent, has been the fact that he is an African American in a nation with a brutal history of race relations that has never elected a black president.
Part of the reason may have been that Mr. Powell rose to national prominence as a military man and became a player in Washington politics not as a fierce, conspicuous proponent of civil rights in the manner of Jesse Jackson but as part of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush teams, hardly bastions of black politics. He has been a black man widely accepted in the white world, in much the same way star athlete O.J. Simpson has been, at least until his trial for murder.
So color-blind has most of America appeared to be toward Mr. Powell that a Times Mirror poll in August found that whites surveyed liked him (62 percent) more than blacks did (59 percent). Andrew Kohut, director of the poll, observes that Mr. Powell like Mr. Simpson before his trial "has been regarded as above race." Indeed, another recent poll found that many African Americans surveyed did not even know that Mr. Powell was black.
Any image of the United States as an increasingly color-blind society suggested by such figures, however, has now been severely jolted by the starkly differing reactions between whites and blacks to the acquittal of Mr. Simpson. Even before the vote, polls showed a severe split by race on the trial, with whites substantially believing him guilty and blacks overwhelmingly saying he was not.
What all this has to do with General Powell is highly problematical, but some white political analysts express astonishment at the solidarity demonstrated among the African-American community for Mr. Simpson. If translated to any substantial degree into support for a candidate Powell in 1996, without a sharp corresponding falloff in his acceptance among white voters, they say, he would be exceedingly hard to beat.
Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 with 13 percent of the black vote and Bush in 1988 with 10 percent. GOP pollster Bob Teeter suggests that Powell could well be elected if he won only 30 percent of that vote, a far from impossible objective. It is reasonable to assume, at the same time, that a black candidate would drive up black turnout. Taking such a chunk of votes from President Clinton could defeat him, since Mr. Clinton in 1992 won the White House with only a minority of white votes cast.
Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, a leading voice of black Americans in Congress, asked on NBC News' "Meet the Press" a week ago whether he could support Mr. Powell over Mr. Clinton for president, replied that "if I can see how he would want the entire country to have the same chances that he had to become who he is, put me down no matter what the party label is."
A white backlash?
The big question is whether a rallying around Mr. Powell by black voters would create a backlash among whites. "Anything that increases attention and hostility on race," Mr. Kohut says, "is not going to be good news for a black candidate." But Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, another black leader in Congress, says he believes Mr. Powell "will be held harmless from any [negative] fallout" of the Simpson case. More important, he says, is whether Mr. Powell will be able to win black solidarity with positions on social issues that are critical to the black community.
In any event, if there is any political message in the reaction to the Simpson verdict, it may be that the racial identity of Colin Powell, apparently a non-factor in the nation's assessment of him to date, may now play a more prominent role in his political prospects, pro and con.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun' Washington bureau.