Colin Powell after his book tour A decision to make: Some pols scoff but the polls look good.


AS COLIN POWELL'S book tour ended, Republicans were beginning to take the possibility of his running for president very seriously. Here are a few things said about him last week: Former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu said he was not a leader but a follower, suited to be secretary of state but not president. Lamar Alexander said he is "too liberal to be nominated." Phil Gramm said he is "a better fit for the Democratic Party." Bob Dole said his views could not stand the scrutiny a campaign would bring. Pat Buchanan said it was "unthinkable" that he could be nominated.

General Powell's politics may not be perfectly clear, but he is not the mystery man he once was, as the criticism suggests. He is a moderate often described as a "Rockefeller Republican." But he voted for Ronald Reagan and was a George Bush loyalist. The first politician to suggest he should run for high office (as GOP vice presidential candidate in 1988) was right-of-center Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

General Powell seems to be taking pains to soothe the Republican right's suspicions of him. He went on record early as being for some gun control, some affirmative action, some abortions and some restrictions on school prayer. But near the end of his book tour he was putting more emphasis on his agreement with much of the Contract with America, praising Speaker Newt Gingrich's leadership and siding with the Republicans on Medicare reform.

Pat Buchanan says, "There really is no argument for the nomination of General Powell other than the fact he is running high in the polls." For conservatives, there's the rub. None of their candidates is doing well in the polls. The far and away leader of the Republican presidential candidates is Senator Dole, who is a moderate by Buchanan-Gramm standards. Senator Dole was ahead of President Clinton in a CBS poll in August. Now he's 12 points behind him.

National polls show Senator Dole ahead of General Powell among Republicans. But in 27 states, including New Hampshire, independents can vote in the Republican primaries. Most are moderates and General Powell is strong among them. During the book tour, while his views were becoming better known, his popularity stayed the same in those August and October CBS polls that showed Senator Dole falling. That is something that General Powell will no doubt consider as he contemplates his decision on entering the fray.

The symbolism of an African American under serious consideration for the presidency makes the Powell phenomenon historic even before he decides his course of action. Others may have contemplated a run, Mr. Jackson for one, but they never had the mainstream aura that surrounds General Powell.

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