Republicans wish upon a reluctant star

Bush begins wooing Powell in hopes of creating dream ticket

March 16, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell insists that nothing has changed since 1995 when, saying he had neither the passion nor commitment for elective office, he firmly declared that he would not be a candidate for the presidency or vice presidency.

And yet, perhaps inevitably, a Powell buzz is in the air again. George W. Bush, the putative Republican presidential nominee, said this week that he planned to talk to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the nation's most admired men, about a place on Bush's ticket.

"There's no question that a man of Colin Powell's stature would send a strong signal to America that I know how to attract the best minds in America," Bush said Tuesday night on CNN.

Powell's office was quick to try to put out any speculative flickers yesterday.

"Nothing has changed since his decision in 1995 regarding running for or being nominated for or accepting an invitation for a political position," said Powell's longtime spokesman, Col. F. William Smullen. "He's simply content with where he is."

The popular Persian Gulf War leader splits his time between giving speeches and running America's Promise, his nonprofit group that works to improve the lives of needy youths. He supported both the Texas governor and Arizona Sen. John McCain in the race for the Republican nomination, contributing the $1,000 individual maximum to each of the candidates and speaking highly of both of them.

When asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" in December whether he would serve as vice president, Powell insisted he still had "no interest in political life, elective political life." But he did not rule out accepting a Cabinet position, such as secretary of state.

"Any president who came to me and asked me to do something in service to the nation I would have to consider," he said.

Smullen said yesterday that Powell, 62, had not been approached by anyone in the Bush camp about any position. But advisers to the Texas governor say they would like nothing better than to be able to persuade Powell, who in 1989 was selected by Bush's father to be the nation's first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to be Bush's running mate.

"If you could get him, it would be a home run," said Charlie Black, a Bush adviser. "At some point, I think you've got to ask."

In fact, Republicans say Powell's presence would be one of the few strokes that could dramatically shake up the presidential race.

"It would change the dynamic of the race and perhaps assure a Bush victory," says Marshall Wittmann, a conservative political analyst who backed McCain in the primaries. "It would send a clear signal that Bush was trying to reach out to independent and swing voters. The big question is whether Bush would be able to sell it to the conservative base of the party that he relied upon to get the nomination."

Powell, who pronounced himself a Republican only five years ago, could attract many of the same voters -- independents and moderate Republicans and Democrats -- who were drawn to McCain and who are expected to decide the November election against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore. Powell is one of the few Republicans who could also help lure African-Americans away from the Democratic Party.

Some conflicts on issues

But the four-star general, who was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrant parents, has taken stands on social issues that are at odds with Bush's conservative stands and might cause political headaches for the presumptive nominee. Powell once referred to unnamed "extremists" on the religious right, for example, and he backs abortion rights and affirmative action and opposes organized prayer in school.

He does agree with Bush in his opposition to allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and was one of the architects of President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- a policy that Bush supports and Gore has vowed to overturn.

The only downside to a Bush-Powell ticket, some political analysts say, is the possibility that the supremely self-possessed and universally respected Powell would greatly upstage Bush, who is already battling a perception that he lacks stature and gravitas.

But Republican strategists say the Powell's potential benefits far outweigh the perils. "Part of gravitas is political imagination," Wittmann says. "If Bush were able to lay the groundwork with his conservative base, convince Powell to do it and put it all together, that would be seen as an affirmation of his leadership skills."

Magic name

Powell confidants say Bush is well aware of the former Army general's professed lack of interest in the vice presidential nomination. But that hasn't prevented the Texan from floating the Powell name.

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