WASHINGTON -- Colin L. Powell closed his book tour last week much as he opened it five weeks ago -- with exuberant crowds, high poll ratings, and with much of the nation trying to decode his every word in search of the truth about his presidential intentions.
The Persian Gulf war hero and now best-selling author isn't saying whether he's in or out, only that he will decide in about two weeks, after holing up with family, friends and advisers.
Meanwhile, the waiting game has put the '96 presidential campaign in a sort of deep-freeze, with the declared Republican candidates not yet knowing how they would take on such a seemingly formidable competitor.
Close associates say Mr. Powell has been emboldened by the book tour and is considering a run more seriously now than before he hit the road. You'd have to be "brain dead," the retired general said last week, not to be moved by the ovations he's received on his nationwide sweep of the country.
"Obviously, there are a lot of impressions inside me that I will have to work through in the next several weeks as I reach my decision," he said at a news conference Friday in Norfolk, Va., as he wrapped up his book tour.
Those close to Mr. Powell say that if he decides to run, he would likely go after the Republican nomination rather than launch an independent bid.
The could-be candidate, for his part, has said that would be the easier route to the White House. But others aren't so sure. Those in both parties argue that, although it would be possible, the man who described himself as a "Rockefeller Republican" and a "New Deal kid" would have an uphill battle trying to nab the GOP nomination in today's climate.
"Powell in no way represents the Republican revolution," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "There could be great disillusionment and the feeling that the revolution had been hijacked."
Many polls have shown Mr. Powell beating all the other Republican candidates, including the front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
Everyone's not convinced
But the numbers don't convince everyone that Mr. Powell could be triumphant in the nominating process. "National polls don't translate into state-by-state primaries," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
Primary elections and caucuses tend to attract party activists and, in the case of the GOP, those who are more conservative than rank-and-file members of the party.
"The people who control the nominating process will not tolerate a pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-assault weapons ban candidate for the Republican Party," says Mr. Mellman.
Already, conservative presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan has said he was ready to take off the gloves and would fight Mr. Powell "all the way to San Diego," the site of next year's Republican nominating convention.
What's more, strategists say Mr. Powell's poll numbers, buoyed by the publicity of his book tour, may be at their peak right now, and will slide if he enters the presidential ring.
Other strategists think the former White House national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should not be underestimated.
Gary Bauer, who heads the conservative Family Research Council, is vehemently opposed to a Powell candidacy. He said he believes Mr. Powell would have a hard time going against the conservative tide that is electing Ronald Reagan-style Republicans across the country.
Still, he said Mr. Powell could walk away with the nomination, "if, like Eisenhower, he brought into the process a bunch of voters who don't normally vote in primaries -- moderate Republicans and crossover Democrats."
Although most states have closed primaries in which only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, 23 states have primaries open to all registered voters. In those states, Democrats and independents could swell support for Mr. Powell.
As Mr. Bauer notes, Dwight D. Eisenhower, with whom Mr.
Powell is often compared, brought out hordes of voters in the 1952 Republican primaries.
Despite the conventional wisdom that primaries are dominated by party activists, Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas (and no relation to Mr. Buchanan the presidential aspirant), argues that the candidates who are most representative of the GOP "revolution" -- Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Mr. Buchanan -- are trailing the more moderate Mr. Dole.
"Voters are not impressed with the people most closely associated with the strong right of the party right now," says Mr. Buchanan. "That's why I wouldn't rule it out."
Even pollster Frank I. Luntz, who is working for Mr. Gramm, concedes that his recent focus groups and voter surveys have shown a preference for a Powell-like candidate over a hard-edged conservative like Mr. Gramm.
'The public wants a healer'
"You've got these attitudes about this country which have never existed before," Mr. Luntz recently told a group of reporters. "The public wants a healer."
Just how a Republican field, with Mr. Powell in it, would shake out is unknown. Pat Buchanan is urging his fellow conservatives to unite in opposition to Mr. Powell "because a Powell nomination by the Republican Party in 1996 would mean an end to the Republican revolution of 1994 and very possibly the end of the Republican Party as it exists today."
But neither Mr. Buchanan nor his conservative colleagues would necessarily be the beneficiary of such opposition. Mr. Bauer says that, without a "Reagan-like figure" to unite around, conservatives reluctantly could rally behind Mr. Dole.
What does seem clear is that a Powell candidacy could split the Republican Party and result in bitter infighting, and possibly a third party run from the right.
"It would make for an extremely divisive nominating fight and an extremely divisive convention," says Mr. Mann. "That's not the stuff out of which successful presidential campaigns are built."
But a few conservative GOP leaders, such as William Kristol, have been pushing a Powell candidacy, saying the military man could be brought around to embrace enough of the "revolution" to be acceptable to conservatives.
And in the past few weeks, there have been signs that they could be right. Mr. Powell has diluted some of the moderate positions he staked out in his debut interviews -- on issues such as abortion and the religious right -- in a move seen by some as an attempt to court conservatives.
He said recently that he supported "most of the elements" of the GOP's "Contract with America" governing blueprint, defended the Republicans' proposed $270 billion cut in Medicare, applauded the efforts of Christian conservatives and said he opposes federal funding of abortions for poor women.
Mr. Powell denied Friday that he was modifying his views to become more acceptable to conservatives. "We're not trying to cozy up to anybody," he said.
Mr. Mann said it would be a mistake for Mr. Powell to try to fit himself into today's Republican mold rather than pursue an independent route to the presidency. "The more he acts in ways that try to mollify conservatives, the more he looks like any other kind of politician," the Brookings scholar says, "and he loses his appeal."
But for every expert who thinks Mr. Powell would undermine his appeal if he runs as a Republican, there is one who sees it as a good fit. "It makes sense for him, tempermentally and politically," says Mr. Buchanan of the University of Texas. "Powell is not an entrepreneurial spirit. He works within frameworks very well.
"In order to run as an independent, you need to be at least as crazy as Ross Perot."