WASHINGTON — Memo to: Colin Powell.
From: Campaign strategists everywhere.
Re: The Road to the White House '96.
General Powell: Increasingly you look like someone who may enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Congratulations - perhaps. We hope you know what you may be getting into. Many political professionals believe you can win. But Senator Dole and those others are pros.
They won't just step aside and and let you sweep to a convention coronation.
If you do run for president (and your wife's reluctance, among other things, might still keep you on the sidelines) you're going to have to fight. Conservative objections to your candidacy are serious. Many on the GOP's conservative wing consider you a dire threat to the congressional Republican revolution.
So a Colin Powell candidacy would need a well-crafted plan. Funny thing about politics - lots of people will be eager to give you advice. Count us among them.
IF campaign analysts were to fashion Powell a nomination strategy, this is what it might look like:
* Don't tilt right and start lip-synching Pat Buchanan. ''Don't pander,'' says political analyst Charles Cook. ''Stay where you are.''
It's true that GOP primary voters tend to be more conservative than the party as a whole, as Democratic primary voters tend to be more liberal. The late Richard Nixon's classic advice to presidential hopefuls in his own party was to run as hard as possible towards the right in primary season, then reverse course and run back towards the center. So far, front-runner Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, a former Nixon protege, appears set to follow this strategy.
But the situation is different for Powell. For the proper candidate, there is a moderate voter base that can deliver the nomination. Mr. Cook points out that 27 states have open primaries, where independents or, in some cases, Democrats, can cross over and vote in the Republican contest. Powell has the name recognition to draw these less-conservative votes to his column.
In any case, rank-and-file conservatives may not be as put off by Powell's moderate positions on abortion and other issues as the reaction of their leaders would indicate. Authority and honor are conservative values, and a number of political professionals believe Powell could top the GOP field in those categories.
Many predicted that the retired general's poll numbers would decline when his book tour started and he took specific positions on issues. They were wrong. His numbers went up.
* Get yourself a conservative front-person - fast.
Still, the hubbub about a potential candidacy on the conservative wing of the party could be damaging. For one thing, it makes Powell seem a divisive nominee. For another, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, the American Conservative Union, and other groups that consider Powell beyond the Republican pale are a powerful political force.
To defuse the controversy, Powell needs a prominent conservative supporter. Jack Kemp and William Bennett, former cabinet secretaries who have supported Powell, aren't enough. Reagan won't be endorsing a candidate. Then there's Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia.
Sure, the House Speaker has not sounded happy about Powell's potential candidacy. He's even hinted about running himself. But the retired Joint Chiefs chairman might convince Gingrich that he's the best chance the GOP has to win the White House. For Gingrich, the choice might not be Powell or Dole. Polls show it might be Powell or Clinton.
''The best way for Colin Powell to do it is say, 'I'm going to run the ship and Newt's going to write the legislation,''' says Samuel Popkin, a California political consultant who has worked for Democratic presidential candidates. ''That would make it very hard on his Republican opponents.''
* Don't let your foes define you as Bill Clinton with medals.
Some of the second-tier candidates are already trying to tie Powell to the Democratic White House. If successful, such an effort could erode the image that's currently more fixed in the public mind: Colin Powell, crisp hero of Desert Storm briefings.
Emphasize efficiency. Powell must reassure voters that he'll make the government run as well as the military did when it ousted Saddam Hussein.
* Finally, get ready to rumble. A run will not resemble your popular book tour.
Powell's ''been on that victory lap now for about 30 days,'' said Senator Dole over the weekend. ''Wait until he comes out and he's surrounded by [reporters].''
Remember, nobody gets handed a presidential nomination. At least, nobody since Ike. Maybe not even him.
''There were many Republicans saying they'd rather lose with [Sen.] Bob Taft than win with Eisenhower,'' remembers Powell supporter and Ike biographer Stephen Ambrose. ''That parallels Powell's current trouble with conservatives.''