The GOP's right wing may be forced to make peace, not war, with the general

November 01, 1995|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In all the furor from the Republican right wing over the threat that retired Gen. Colin Powell poses to the Gingrich Revolution, and how the righties will see to it that he is never nominated, one fact is conveniently given short shrift: If he chooses to run, it will be the voters, not the heavy thinkers and their disciples, who will decide his fate.

The leaders of the religious and ideological right, in their condemnation of Colin Powell for sounding like -- heaven forbid -- a Rockefeller Republican, are thundering their objections over the moderate and limited support the general has recited for abortion rights, affirmative action, gun control and other policies that in their view make him a pariah in the GOP According to Newt.

These champions of going back to yesteryear act as if they will make the call on Colin Powell in the revered smoke-filled rooms of yore, when a handful of power brokers decided. The fact, however, is that next year delegates to the Republican National Convention in San Diego will be selected in presidential primaries in more than 40 states.

While it is certainly likely that these recognized or self-proclaimed titans of the religious and ideological right will play a major role in turning out their troops to vote in these primaries, it is by no means certain that they will have the dominant role.

Altering the arithmetic

If the early book on Mr. Powell and voters who openly express interest in him as a candidate are right, his potential ballot-box strength is much broader than that of any one special interest or ideological group. What makes Mr. Powell potentially so telling as a candidate is that he could alter the arithmetic of the 1996 election by swelling turnout in the state primaries, conceivably diluting the influence of the ideologues.

In the intensifying speculation about Colin Powell, the comparison with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 is inevitable -- and instructive if misleading. Eisenhower like Colin Powell was seen largely as a nonpolitical figure, cloaking his party affiliation for a long time. Eisenhower like Mr. Powell also had to buck the ideological purists in his party who favored the orthodox conservative then known as Mr. Republican, Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio.

But in 1952 Eisenhower, with his own group of party bigwigs led by former Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, did not campaign personally in a single primary. He was serving as supreme allied commander in Europe during the primaries and did not resign from the Army until the day after he secured the Republican nomination.

His name was entered in only a handful of primaries, starting with New Hampshire, which he won, and also including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Oregon. But victories in all of them, combined with old-fashioned back-room politicking in his behalf by Dewey and his associates (including eventually 18 of 23 Republican governors) and a stiff but winning fight over contested delegates at the national convention, brought him the nomination over Taft on the first ballot.

Mr. Powell, by contrast, is already out of the Army, is now expressing a distinct preference to run as a Republican, and is looking at a delegate-selection process that is far removed from the old smoke-filled rooms. A record total of 42 states -- as of now -- will choose their Republican convention delegates in presidential primaries, and the other eight in caucuses and/or state conventions.

This fact presents a daunting challenge not only to Mr. Powell but also to the religious and ideological ultraconservatives bent on scuttling his chances. It is true that voter turnout in primaries and caucuses historically is much lower than in general elections, and is often dominated by special-interest activists. But if the public demand for change is what the polls say it is, and if the appeal of Mr. Powell is as wide as the polls say it is, the bark of the ideological heavy thinkers on the far right, now yapping at his heels, may prove to be worse than their bite.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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