ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Saying a presidential candidacy required a "passion and commitment" he did not yet feel, Colin L. Powell ended months of feverish speculation yesterday by announcing that he would not be a candidate for the presidency -- or any other elective office -- in 1996.
With his wife, Alma, by his side, Mr. Powell, 58, said that after weeks of "prayerful consideration" and consultations with friends, family and advisers, he had decided that he could not conjure up the same fire for politics that he felt "every day in my 35 years as a soldier.
"Such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear," the retired general told several hundred journalists who packed a hotel ballroom here. "And for me to pretend otherwise would not be honest to myself, it would not be honest to the American people. And therefore, I cannot go forward."
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who rose to public prominence during the Persian Gulf war, had intrigued Americans for months with the prospect of his candidacy. He had hinted he would seek the Republican nomination if he ran and had kept the presidential campaign on hold while he decided.
His decision appeared to deliver a big boost to the leading Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, as well as to President Clinton, who trailed Mr. Powell in one-on-one matchups in several polls.
At the news conference yesterday, Mr. Powell said a candidacy would require sacrifices and changes that would be difficult for his family to make at this time.
"The welfare of my family had to be uppermost in my mind," he said, appearing commanding and at ease with his decision.
Mr. Powell, who had never made his party affiliation clear, pointedly declared himself a Republican at the news conference.
He said he still wanted to participate in some way in the political process, perhaps by speaking out on important issues and helping to move the Republican Party closer to "the spirit of Lincoln."
He said that he would not accept a vice-presidential nomination in the coming election. "I have ruled it out," Mr. Powell stated flatly.
An African-American whose centrist views appealed to both moderate Democrats and Republicans, Mr. Powell, many believe, was uniquely positioned to heal some of the nation's racial woes and bring a measure of civility to the political arena.
The general's up-by-the-bootstraps life saga captivated many Americans. With his air of authority, self-confidence and integrity, Mr. Powell seemed to many a natural candidate for national office. Several leading political strategists were ready to join his campaign, and draft-Powell groups sprang up around the country.
His popularity soared to heroic proportions on his recent book tour to promote his autobiography, where thousands lined up to see him and urge him to run.
Mr. Powell's announcement was a huge blow to those who had championed his candidacy, including members of the several draft-Powell movements who have been working to line up money and potential campaign workers.
"I have a whole network of people out there who are crushingly disappointed," said David Cooper, state organization director for Citizens for Colin Powell.
Mr. Powell acknowledged that he was letting down thousands of Americans, especially after taking so much time to make his decision and, along the way, raising expectations of VVTC candidacy.
"I'm sorry I disappointed you," he said. "For me and my family, saying no was harder than saying yes."
While the exit of Mr. Powell makes the way easier for both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole, neither was willing to express glee publicly.
At the West Wing of the White House, aides watched the news conference with smiles and sighs of relief. The president issued a statement saying he understood how difficult it is to decide whether to run for president.
Mr. Dole, whose chances of securing his party's nomination would have been severely threatened by Mr. Powell, said he was pleased that the general had found a home in the Republican Party.
"I will actively seek his advice and counsel as we work to bring our people together, broaden the appeal of our party, and move our nation forward," he said.
Mr. Powell's absence from the presidential field sparked renewed interest in House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said that, while he is unlikely to run for the presidency, he would consider it only if Mr. Powell did not run.
Yesterday, Mr. Gingrich said he would not think about his possible entry into the presidential race "until we get done with a balanced budget." He said he and his wife, Marianne, would discuss it over the Thanksgiving break.
Other Republican presidential candidates portrayed the Powell announcement as a gain for them. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas considered Mr. Dole's chief challenger for the nomination, said Mr. Powell's departure from the landscape signifies that the presidential "field is set." The choice is between "Bob Dole and me," he said.
The decision was also seen as a victory for some conservatives who felt Mr. Powell's moderate views on social issues such as abortion and affirmative action would hijack their newly emboldened agenda. Last week, a group of conservatives served notice that it would strenuously oppose his bid for the GOP nomination, and attacked his leadership and military record.
Mr. Powell denied that such criticism deterred him from running, saying it "rolled off my back." But he rebuked the conservatives who railed against him last week and said their personal attacks contributed to the "incivility" of politics.
Mr. Powell said he reached his decision Monday night, after flipping back and forth "very, very often" in recent weeks. He would not rule out a candidacy beyond 1996, saying "the future is the future."
Although Mrs. Powell has said she opposed her husband's candidacy because of concerns about his safety, both insisted yesterday that security was not a factor, even in the aftermath of the assassination last weekend of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"I had no concerns about my personal safety," Mr. Powell said. He added that he had "pretty much" reached his decision not to run by Saturday night, when Mr. Rabin was killed.
Mrs. Powell acknowledged she had a concern about safety, but said, "It certainly played no part in his decision."
They also discounted as a factor recent reports about their private life -- specifically, Mrs. Powell's history of depression, for which she is treated. "My wife has depression," Mr. Powell said plainly. "It is not a family secret. It is very easily controlled with proper medication, just as my blood pressure is sometimes under control with proper medication."
Mr. Powell, who has become wealthy through his speaking engagements and his best-selling book, for which he received a $6 million advance, said he plans to remain in private life and seek other ways to serve the country, perhaps through charitable and educational activities.
He said he planned to help the Republican Party broaden its appeal to blacks, and "find ways for me to help heal the racial divides that still exist within our society."
He declined to say whether he would endorse a candidate, and said there were GOP contenders whom he would not support. He did not name them.