WASHINGTON -- In a harsh attack on Colin L. Powell's character and record, 11 conservative activists threatened yesterday to do everything in their power to prevent the retired general from becoming the Republican nominee if he enters the 1996 presidential contest.
Standing shoulder to shoulder at a Washington news conference, the conservatives portrayed General Powell as a creation of the Washington establishment and a liberal news media -- and the embodiment of everything they have fought against for decades.
"If Colin Powell runs, conservatives lose," said Paul M. Weyrich, a leading spokesman for social conservatives.
General Powell, a decorated Vietnam veteran who rose to
become the nation's highest-ranking uniformed officer, is "too cautious to be commander in chief," Mr. Weyrich said. Mr. Weyrich maintained that he and the other speakers reflected the views of hundreds of thousands of conservative activists nationwide.
Indeed, Mr. Weyrich added, General Powell is so "risk-averse" that "he may not want to run after this press conference."
One of the most biting attacks came from Morton C. Blackwell, a Republican national committeeman from Virginia and a former Reagan White House aide, who criticized fellow conservatives -- such as former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and former Dan Quayle aide William Kristol -- for promoting the idea of a Powell candidacy.
Without naming them, he accused them of taking "leave of their senses. If General Powell were a white general holding his views, they would not consider for a minute supporting his nomination."
Polls show General Powell running only slightly behind Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas among likely Republican primary voters. A recent poll showed him leading Mr. Dole in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
General Powell has said he will announce this month whether he will run. His backers have said that they would hope to draw independents and Democrats into the Republican primaries next year to overcome any opposition from conservatives.
It is not clear whether the sentiments expressed about General Powell at the news conference are felt by conservative voters outside Washington, or even by the party's leadership.
His prospective candidacy has received a warm reception from the Republican national chairman, Haley Barbour, who said General Powell is "very much in the mainstream of the Republican Party." And the leader of the conservative movement at the moment, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, has largely steered clear of the matter.
Speakers at yesterday's event predicted that if General Powell entered the race, his views and character would become better-known and his candidacy would fall flat. But the lengths to which they say they are going to oppose his candidacy suggest that they view him as a serious threat.
Zeroing in on General Powell's support for abortion rights, the head of the nation's largest anti-abortion political action committee vowed to use "tens of thousands of volunteers in over 3,000 communities" to oppose him.
"If he seeks the Republican nomination, our top priority during the primaries will be his defeat," said Carol Long, director of the National Right to Life PAC.
General Powell has aligned himself with supporters of "special rights for homosexuals" and is no different from Bill Clinton in his support of racial preferences in hiring and education, said Mike Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Calling General Powell a "risk-averse and politically hypersensitive military officer," Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, called the judgment of the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman "suspect."
He mentioned General Powell's reported advocacy of continued economic sanctions, rather than military action, against Iraq and his opposition to completing the destruction of the Iraqi army at the close of the Persian Gulf war.
Many of the speakers seized on General Powell's self-description as a "Rockefeller Republican" as proof that he would try to destroy the conservative revolution that came to power last November.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the news conference was designed to "demonstrate the depth and breadth of feeling within the [conservative] movement."
If General Powell runs, "he will get very little conservative support, without which he cannot possibly hope to win," said Mr. Keene, an adviser to Mr. Dole's campaign. At least four other participants at yesterday's event are also actively supporting one of the announced GOP candidates, either Mr. Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Malcolm S. Forbes Jr. or Patrick J. Buchanan.