WHY HE MIGHT STAY

For nearly two years, the settled wisdom in Washington has been that Colin Powell would never stick around for a second Bush term. The secretary of State, who began his tenure as the most popular and prestigious figure in Bush's cabinet, was fed up--tired of being a moderate minority of one in a squall of neocon true believers. But last week there was a hint that the settled wisdom may now be unsettled. A former close aide and current confidant of Powell's, asked during the GOP convention whether the secretary might stay on, nodded his head eagerly and said yes.

The reason, the ex-official hinted, is that global events are moving in Powell's direction. In Iraq and on other future flash points like Iran and North Korea, an administration that once short-shrifted Powell's diplomacy now badly needs it. He also has more control than he's had in a while, especially over Iraq, where America's new viceroy, Ambassador John Negroponte, answers to the secretary of State. (The previous top civilian, L. Paul Bremer III, nominally worked for Powell's archrival, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.) And Powell no doubt realizes that if he leaves now, he will be departing at what is perhaps the low point of his reputation at home and abroad; another term would allow him to recoup.

Powell isn't talking about his plans for 2005. Nor is the White House, except to say he would be welcome, as one official put it. It's possible that the new murmurs reflect some of the politics of the campaign; GOP operatives, and possibly Powell himself, may want to send a message to swing voters that Bush is headed for the center. But "a lot of people are beginning to talk about this scenario," says one State official. "At least that he might stay around for a year." If Bush wins and Powell does stay, it could be the first sign that Bush's second term might prove to be less radical than his first, especially in foreign policy.

Every president spends his second term fretting about his place in history, and foreign policy is usually what defines it. If Bush wins in November, he will be no different. Bush may have begun his term as a foreign-policy featherweight. But Bush's nearly four years in the Oval Office, particularly those after 9/11, have been the intellectual equivalent of a grueling Ph.D. examination. And he must know that he can't enter the ranks of the great presidents without a first-class foreign-policy record. In order to do this he must achieve one major thing he has failed at: winning respect abroad.

The president also knows he is paying dearly for his administration's bullying tone. Judging from polls, Bush may be the most unpopular American leader ever overseas. Anti-Americanism has grown so bad that no foreign leader can cooperate with Bush, on Iraq or any other issue, without taking a severe hit in his own polls. But if Bush wins, foreign governments that may now be hoping for his defeat will have no choice but to deal with the United States. If a re-elected Bush meets these foreign leaders just halfway, the history of his second term could take a surprising new turn. And Bush undoubtedly knows that Colin Powell, who still commands great respect abroad, could prove to be an invaluable asset.