WHEN HE announced plans to leave Congress to campaign $$ full time for the White House, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said his No. 1 summer job would be to persuade retired Army Gen. Colin Powell to be his GOP running mate.
Dole himself admits the task won't be easy. For one thing, any position he could offer Powell would represent a major income reduction for the much-admired ex-general, whose annual speaking fees alone run into the low seven figures. Then there's Powell's announced distaste for mudslinging, an ugly yet unavoidable part of any election campaign.
With Powell on the ticket, according to some recent polls, Dole would beat Bill Clinton in a close race. Without him, there's no telling how badly he might lose.
Dole will have to make a persuasive pitch just to get Powell's attention his emotional farewell address to the Senate suggests two approaches that might work. Dole, the wounded World War II veteran, could talk to Powell as a fellow soldier. Or he could use his "I-trust-the-hard-way" philosophy to appeal to Powell's sense of pride in his own accomplishment as the first African-American to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Both are good arguments. But will they get Powell into the race? Not likely.
What Dole needs in a dramatic event or chain of events that would engage Powell's patriotism as well as his interest in foreign affairs. And just such a scenario is unfolding in Russia.
Many observers think Communist Party presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov will emerge the final winner in this summer's Russian elections, and if that happens, Dole could have just what he needs to end Powell's retirement.
Powell, who spent most of his military career planning how to fight the Soviets, understands better than most the threat posed by a communist Russia. So when Dole says his country needs him to deal with a newly belligerent Kremlin -- possibly even another Cold War -- Powell would have a hard time saying no.
But a communist victory in the Russian elections would have another important benefit for the Republicans. Currently, foreign policy issues are getting little, if any, attention in the American presidential race. Zyuganov could change that in a hurry.
What would U.S. voters think if Russia suddenly pulled its peacekeeping troops out of Bosnia, ended its effort to dismantle Soviet-era nuclear warheads, and threatened to block NATO expansion in Eastern Europe?
All of this could happen under a communist government, and if it does, the beneficiaries will be the Republicans, traditionally seen as better at handling foreign affairs than the Democrats. That perception was confirmed last month when a poll by the Wall Street Journal gave the GOP a 43 percent to 20 percent advantage over Democrats in foreign policy management.
Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, presidential politicians have been looking for some larger-than-life bad guy to take its place. Saddam Hussein, the Bosnian Serbs and North Korea have all been tried and abandoned.
For presidential contender, the need for a Soviet substitute has been particularly acute. With the USSR no longer around to challenge, the new measure of leadership potential is how bravely candidates promise to stand up to Congress and the special-interest establishment.
Clearly, this would have been a difficult ploy for Dole had he stayed in his old job. Retiring from the Senate solved that problem. And with a communist Russia now in the picture, he could soon be right in his natural element.
Meanwhile, if Zyuganov ends up beating incumbent Russian President Boris N, Yeltsin, it's Clinton and the Democrats who will be on the defensive. Under normal circumstances, the White House gets a political boost from an international crisis, which is just what a communist comeback would be. However, Clinton's indecisive command of defense policy issues will make it easy to blame him for "losing Russia."
Finally, nothing will help unify the Dole and Patrick Buchanan wings of the Republican Party faster than a victory by Russian communists. In fact, the threat of a renewed Cold War would be a rallying cry to all the far-flung factions in the GOP. It might even bring back many Ross Perot supporters.
Dole knows his lackluster presidential bid needs the communists. But for that to happen he also needs the voters in Russia, who now hold the key to their political future and his.
Bill Thomas, a former reporter for The Sun, recently returnefrom a trip to Russia, where he has been writing about social and political affairs since 1990. His latest book, "Capital Confidential," was published early this year by Pocket Books.
Pub Date: 6/02/96