Outside a bookstore deep inside the Washington Belt-way, a horde of reporters jostle for position. A thousand fans of Colin Powell wait in a line that snakes past a liquor store, a chicken takeout, a frame-it-yourself shop. Even the supermarket bagboys, red aprons flapping in the breeze, are out watching the scene in McLean, Va. "Is this really the start of a book tour, or a presidential campaign?" booms ABC's Sam Donaldson, who has said a Powell presidency would be "good for the country." The retired general smiles. "This does have something to do with the promotion of the book," he concedes. "But at the same time I do have a deep concern about the country . . . I'll find out after this book tour what the best way is for me to serve."
If American politics is to be upended, the man most likely to do it-paradoxically-is this smooth-talking, well-connected ornament of the establishment: the insiders' favorite outsider. Powell will have to be uncharacteristically bold. Rather than assemble an organization, for now he'll rely on fame, a fawning press and a 26-city book tour. If he runs for the Republican nomination, he must enlist a new wave of GOP voters and independents in an encircling maneuver around powerful GOP conservatives: a left hook worthy of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah. And if Powell instead runs as an independent, he'll have to perform an even more dramatic end run around politics as we know it, taking on both parties with the troops of the radical middle.
Powell seems to relish the taste of combat. In an interview with Barbara Walters, he fired a shot at Pete Wilson, calling the California governor's recent repudiation of affirmative action "political pandering." Criticism of "timidity" from Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a leading supporter of Sen. Bob Dole, didn't bother him, Powell told Walters. "The last person in the world I feel a need to defend my courage to is Senator D'Amato," he said dismissively.
Calmly, almost nonchalantly, Powell is laying out positions that would seem to make him an implausible -- if not doomed -- contender for the GOP nomination. In TV interviews, he disclosed that he favors the death penalty, "three strikes and you're out" sentencing laws and a balanced-budget amendment. But he also said that he is pro-choice, in favor of some affirmative action, a gun owner willing to accept waiting periods and registration of firearms, and a supporter of a moment of silence, not open prayer, in schools. "He can take one or two of those positions and survive as a Republican," said Daniel Casse, a strategist for Lamar Alexander. "Taking all four is suicide."
Don't plan the funeral just yet. Powell's views are as shrewdly aimed as a terrain-reading cruise missile. A new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that overwhelming majorities of voters tend to agree with Powell's statements on abortion, gun control and school prayer. More than half the electorate even agree with him on affirmative action. Among Republicans, Dole remains the GOP favorite, with 87 percent. But the supposedly suicidal Powell runs a strong second, at 22 percent. No one else cracks double digits. A three-way matchup looks like this: Bill Clinton 35 percent, Dole 29 percent, Powell (as an independent) 27 percent. And the book tour has only just begun.
As a military man, Powell believed in preserving options. Now he's setting up a political scenario that resembles a tactical bombing run: a series of decision points with plenty of chances to turn back to base. His main target of opportunity now, by all accounts, is the Republican nomination. An independent or third-party bid would be a "long shot," he acknowledges. "I'm convinced Powell is a Republican," says Sen. Bill Bradley, who has spoken with the retired general on several recent occasions. Powell seems to have decided that time and tide favor a GOP campaign. "At some point you have to get going," he told television interviewer David Frost. "I'll have to fish or cut bait."
For now, at least, he's hooked the media and political establishment. At a Manhattan party sponsored by his publisher, Random House, Powell supped with a small group that included Walters, who later aired a reverential one-hour interview and mini-biography on ABC. A Time magazine book party in Washington drew another adoring crowd. And commentators ranging from conservative Bill Kristol to Democratic Ragin' Cajun James Carville pronounce themselves impressed. "If Powell runs against the president," says the normally caustic Carville, "I'm going to have a hard time thinking of something nasty."
The press, eventually, will have no such hesitation. Annoyed at the mega-hype surrounding the publication of "My American Journey," reporters are eager to ask Powell probing, uncomfortable questions. The general will use his book tour to see if they have the nerve to attack, and if he can keep his temper when they do.
Powell believes in the fateful importance of details. Between now and late November he will have to attend to them. Campaign cash shouldn't be a problem. "There are people all over the country who would love to give him money," says GOP insider Jim Lake. "Once he raises some, he then could do what Ronald Reagan did: buy TV time for a fund-raising appeal by mail."
The consummate staff man, Powell knows that a campaign team is a more pressing logistical question. His informal advisers are highly respected Washington insiders, but campaign neophytes. Many of the top GOP operatives are signed up with other candidates. Still, recruits are available. Many of George Bush's former lieu-tenants-and, reportedly, the former boss himself-are eager to see Powell run. At a Washington charity dinner last week, Republican insiders committed to other candidates were salivating at the thought of working for Powell. The event honored the late GOP chairman Lee Atwater, who would have understood the crowd's hunger to mix it up--and find a winner.
Ever cautious, Powell will travel the country with one eye on the Congress and the other on the GOP field. On Capitol Hill, he will look for a "train wreck" budget crisis that makes the GOP candidates in the Senate look weak and further tarnishes politicians as a class. He'll consider what the final Republican field looks like. (It's soon likely to include another candidate, publisher Malcolm S. Forbes Jr.) And Powell will wait to see if Dole stumbles in mid-November in the first national TV debate and in a pivotal GOP straw poll in Florida.
Once Powell gets a feel for the media, the money, the staff and his competition, he'll take a hard look at GOP primary voters. The conventional wisdom is that he can't win. The theory: conservatives control the grass roots, and Powell, a "Rockefeller Republican," is too liberal for today's GOP. But it's not that simple. For one, Powell's life seems to exemplify qualities the religious right admires. "We have serious problems with his stands on the issues," says Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed. "But he does in fact embody traditional family values." As they scramble rightward to appeal to the evangelical vote, candidates such as Dole, Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan could divide the right and leave an opening on the underdeveloped other side of the party.
Yet to win, Powell would need more than clean living and a divided right. He needs to draw voters -- Republicans, independents and even Democrats-in the 27 "open" GOP primaries next year (chart, page 89). The most important is, as always, New Hampshire. In that state nearly a third of the voters register as "undeclared"--no party affiliation. They can vote in either primary, and tend to go where the action is. Powell may excite them, as Gary Hart did in 1984.
There are other opportunities. Powell would have to sweep New England. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld hopes to deliver the region's libertarian voters to Wilson, whose campaign is faltering and who may or may not be a factor by March. The next rich target is Florida. Though a "closed primary," Florida is home to moderate "snowbird" retirees from the Midwest and Northeast. They could be a natural Powell constituency. After Florida, Powell would have to sweep the Midwest. "It's doable," says GOP consultant Roger Stone, whose own pro-choice candidate, Sen. Arlen Specter, is trying the same path.
But nothing is "doable" until Powell decides to do it-and until he decides what the purpose of a Powell presidency would be. That, ultimately, is what voters will want to know once they've read his book. "He can't yet complete the sentence, 'I want to be president because . . . '," says one of his confidants. "He hasn't figured that out yet." At the rate things are going, he'd better start trying.
PHOTO (COLOR): Good to go? Kicking off his vast book tour, Powell seems to be leaning to the GOP
PHOTO (COLOR): The book primary: In McLean, Va. -- near his comfortable suburban Washington house and just a few miles from the Pentagon--Powell presses his first flesh
With his moderate views on abortion, guns and affirmative action, Powell will try to circumvent conservatives, focusing on states that allow all voters -- not just Republicans -- to cast ballots in the early races.
Open primary (all registered voters) Washington 36 Idaho 23 Colorado 27 North Dakota 18 Nebraska 24 Kansas 31 Texas 123 Wisconsin 36 Illinois 69 Arkansas 20 Michigan 57 Indiana 52 Tennessee 37 Puerto Rico 14 Mississippi 32 Alabama 40 Georgia 42 Ohio 67 West Virginia 18 North Carolina 58 South Carolina 37 Georgia 42 Maine 15 New Hampshire 16 Vermont 12 Massachusetts 37 New Jersey 48 Rhode Island 16 Closed primary (GOP voters only) Oregon 23 California 163 Arizona 39 New Mexico 18 South Dakota 18 Oklahoma 38 Louisiana 28 Kentucky 26 Florida 98 Pennsylvania 73 Maryland 32 D.C. 14 Delaware 12 New York 102 Connecticut 27 Total number of delegates: 1,983 Number needed to nominate: 993
Date of Republican primary Feb. 20 New Hampshire Feb. 24 Delaware Feb. 27 Arizona North Dakota South Dakota March 2 South Carolina March 3 Puerto Rico March 5 Colorado Connecticut March 5 Georgia Maine Maryland Massachusetts Rhode Island Vermont March 7 New York March 12 Florida Louisiana March 12 Mississippi Oklahoma Oregon Tennessee Texas March 19 Illinois Michigan Ohio Wisconsin March 26 California Washington April 2 Kansas April 23 Pennsylvania May 7 D.C. Indiana North Carolina May 14 Nebraska West Virginia May 21 Arkansas May 28 Idaho Kentucky June 4 Alabama New Jersey New Mexico