WHEN the smoke clears after this bitterly fought election, two big questions are bound to emerge: Is Colin Powell going to run for president in 1996? And is Powell a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?
Just a year ago I wrote, ``The smartest move the Republican Party could make would be to select Gen. Colin Powell as its presidential candidate in 1996.''
I added, ``People just don't see color in his case. Instead, they see a highly competent, articulate, and always reasonable and temperate human being.''
At the time, a friend of Powell's called to say that the general was pleased with the column. This caller, himself a longtime figure in Republican politics, said that his impression was that Powell was much interested in becoming the GOP standard-bearer in '96.
The caller's ``impression'' may have been shaped by wishful thinking. Powell's parents were Democrats, and another of his close friends says that Powell's politics, like those of most generals and admirals, are ``nonaffiliated'' - and that Powell says he is an independent.
General Powell has proved to be the most enduring hero of the Gulf war. And recently he polished his hero image with a highly acclaimed negotiating role in Haiti - along with Jimmy Carter and Sam Nunn. Indeed, some polls show that as of today Powell would defeat Clinton, and that other potential GOP presidential candidates would fall short: Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, Richard Cheney, James Baker, Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander, and Phil Gramm.
The color issue is no bar. A Newsweek poll asked, ``Could a black candidate like Powell get enough support from white voters to be elected?'' And 63 percent said ``yes.''
We doubtless will go through a guessing period on Powell. He's smart to keep it that way - at least for another year.
Powell's model probably is General Eisenhower, who kept us all in doubt for several years. He had been so involved in military matters before World War II and then in the war itself that he may have put domestic politics out of his mind.
President Truman thought that Eisenhower was a Democrat and indicated that he would like Ike to succeed him in the presidency. When Eisenhower showed no interest, Truman felt rebuffed. That apparently was the beginning of a cold relationship between the two.
Powell's spectacular rise in the military came under Republicans. After serving as a top aide to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, he soon moved up to become Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George Bush. Powell has kept a warm relationship with several of the high GOP officials with whom he served, including Bush.
On the other hand, Powell has not really gotten along well with President Clinton. He opposes Clinton's gays-in-the-military policy.
So I conclude that Powell - if he runs - will do so as a Republican. I think he would be delighted to take on Bill Clinton.