Schwarzkopf For President?

Van Poole, the Republican chairman in Florida, is under pressure. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf III - the hottest nonpolitical political commodity since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower - happens to reside in Tampa, Fla., near MacDill Air Force Base. Businessmen there who've shot skeet with him say he's One of Them: a Republican. They think he can be talked into running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. All Poole has to do is set up the meeting. He's lined up a Miami finance guy and a Washington consultant, ready for rapid deployment. "I guess I should be at the bottom of the stairs when he comes off the plane," says Poole.

Poole will have to get in line. Polls can't describe the popularity of a four-star general with a 93 percent "favorable" rating. The National Enquirer called him "America's sexiest man." Barbara Walters's first chat with him set a "20/20" record, outdrawing Donna Rice and Mike Tyson. David Frost booked him for this week. Now another accolade. William Safire, the impish pundit, suggests "the Big Guy" is a "hot candidate for a Democratic draft," who could win the presidential nomination with a bold dash across the vast desert of the 1992 field.

The scenario is all the more alluring because Schwarzkopf's politics are a mystery. He grew up in New Jersey, where his father had been appointed state police chief by a Democratic governor. Democratic congressional friends insist he has told them he's with them. Yet he publicly calls himself an "independent" and neither he nor his wife, Brenda, is listed on the Florida voter rolls. The only solid hint comes from his daughter Jessica. She registered in May - as a Republican.

Six presidents have moved from military careers to the White House. But it's been decades since generals were fashionable political draftees. Korea and Vietnam were murky, inconclusive wars that produced stoic hero-victims, not salable commanders. World War II was the last war with goals and results clear enough to forge headquarters greatness. After that war President Harry Truman privately told Eisenhower that he would support him for president in 1948 if Ike would run as a Democrat. Eisenhower demurred, and took a detour through academe. He ran and won in 1952 as a Republican.

There's no evidence that Schwarzkopf has talked about running for anything with anyone. He impressed Frost as a man "thinking on a global scale about global ideas" who hadn't bothered with anything so pedestrian as politics. "There's something rather unworldly about him at the moment," said Frost.

Unlike Ike, Schwarzkopf was born to campaign. He has both West Point and showmanship in his blood. His father was a general who became a radio-show host. The son clearly is intrigued by politics. He's left the door coyly ajar ("I can't say never, OK?" he told Walters). He's mentioned pet issues: conservation, the environment, education. His lordly yet compassionate briefings are as legendary as his brilliant flanking maneuver in Iraq. He even sports the fashionable "Iron John" image of a tough guy who can cry. Scooping a handful of desert sand into a keepsake bottle, he smiled for the cameras like a veteran more familiar with photo-ops than psy-ops. "The guy's a natural," said Democratic consultant Robert Squier. "He was the TV host of the war."

Politics is trickier ground than the desert. The very lure of military men - the leaderly, above-it-all distance from the humdrum of domestic strife - often means they have a tin ear in public debate. Unlike 1948, there are no party leaders to hand you the nomination. You have to win primaries. As "Stormin' Norman," Schwarzkopf terrorized junior officers, who could grumble but not revolt. In politics there is no chain of command, just endless cajolery. Consultants don't take orders, they give them - or quit. The press corps he cowed in Riyadh will be emboldened on the campaign trail, nettling him about taxes, education, the environment or welfare. "What's he going to say about the economy, 'We're goin' north'?" jeered Democratic consultant Harrison Hickman.

Even so, Schwarzkopf could probably win the Democratic nomination if he wanted it and systematically set out to get it. That conclusion says as much about the dispirited Democrats as it does about "The Bear." For the first time since the New Deal, according to a new poll by the Times Mirror Co., far more Americans identify with the GOP than the Democrats. There's not much candidate competition. "As of right now I think he probably could edge out George McGovern and Paul Tsongas," Hickman dryly observed. But assuming he is a Republican, the 56-year-old Schwarzkopf would have to wait for a crack at the White House. George Bush's own "favorables" aren't exactly weak. That leaves a Senate bid, if Schwarzkopf could countenance the notion of being one of 100. But that's state GOP chairman Poole's - and C-Span's - best hope.