WASHINGTON -- The political universe, having now survived Ross Perot's command performance for 1996 presidential hopefuls in Dallas, is likely to move next to an intensification of the game of will-he-or-won't-he regarding retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell.
Powell's long awaited biography is due out next month and with it the usual extensive book tour and round of high-profile television interviews that mark such august occasions. What makes the game particularly enticing is the parallel guessing game of what-is-he, as in Republican, Democrat or neither.
Ever since his retirement from the Army nearly two years ago, Powell has managed while occasionally working the lucrative lecture circuit to keep both his political intentions and political affiliation unknown. These are remarkable feats in this day and age, when political journalism affords public figures little privacy and keeps up a drumbeat of interrogation.
But Powell's unique position as an esteemed military man who has also engaged in dicey diplomatic chores for two Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and George Bush) and one Democratic (Bill Clinton), plus his cool and disciplined personal style, have largely insulated him from sniping by the news media.
An axiom in politics holds that the longer a would-be candidate is in the public eye, the more vulnerable he becomes as his shortcomings and faults become more apparent. But Powell since his retirement has stood this axiom on its head, largely by minding what he says and does.
A new poll for U.S. News and World Report has produced remarkable results. Since an earlier poll in 1993, when Powell retired from the military, his approval rating has actually climbed, along with the percentage of those who believe he should run for president. The poll found that 71 percent of polled voters rate Powell favorably compared with 62 percent in 1993, and 46 percent now think he should run, compared with 33 percent then.
More surprisingly, Powell, who is black, was given a higher favorability score among white voters (73 percent) than among blacks (57 percent) and an insignificant 5 percent unfavorability among both groups. However, in a finding that may well account for the disparity in the favorable ratings, is that one of every four blacks surveyed said they had never heard of Powell. Presumably the rating among blacks will rise as those polled know he also is black.
All this does not mean, however, that Powell would have easy sledding as a candidate, even in the current political climate that is so hostile to established politicians and parties. The same poll found that 62 percent of Republicans and Democrats surveyed said they would vote for the candidate of their party. In a three-way race against President Clinton and the Republican front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the poll found, Powell would run only a close third: Clinton 34 percent, Dole 29 percent, Powell 27.
That showing, however, is remarkable for a man who has indicated neither his desire to run nor his party affiliation. There is no assurance, at the same time, that if Powell ran against Clinton and Dole as an independent that he would have that growing pool of voters to himself. Ross Perot continued to play the reluctant but available bridegroom at his show in Dallas last weekend and Jesse Jackson at the same meeting proclaimed the virtues of an independent or third-party candidacy.
Perot and Jackson, however, are known quantities, and therefore their growth potential for a another presidential bid in 1996 is probably limited. Other polls show both men have very high negative ratings to go along with their positives. Powell, by contrast, seems to have few detractors who will own up to their doubts.
Two imponderables, one legitimate and one not, remain for Powell. The first is what he stands for, which is something voters should take into consideration but might not. The second is his race, which is something they should not consider, but might. So far, however, neither seems to affect the general judgment that Colin Powell is a great guy, and might make a great president.