THE smartest move the Republican Party could make would be to select Gen. Colin Powell as its presidential candidate in 1996. The recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is keeping his thoughts on the subject to himself - much the way Gen. Dwight Eisenhower did right up until the 1952 presidential year. But Ike turned out to be willing, and so would General Powell.
I firmly believe no one turns down a chance to become president if the prospects for victory look good. And they would look quite promising for Powell, even if Bill Clinton is riding high. Powell could cut deeply into the black vote that almost automatically has gone to the Democratic candidate ever since the days of President Franklin Roosevelt. Additionally, a substantial number of liberal Democrats would be tempted to cross over to be a part of electing the first black president.
But the main reason Powell would give President Clinton a run for his money and perhaps beat him is that he is regarded by most Americans as just another American. Not as a black. Not as a white. People just don't see color in his case.
Instead, they see a highly competent, articulate, and always reasonable and temperate human being.
Powell would be running as someone who would, very simply, be a president of all of the people. The general has won high regard, particularly for his cool performance during the Gulf War when the public daily watched him answer questions on television.
More than anything else in Powell's favor is what political strategists refer to as the ``recognition factor.'' Because of his highly visible role in the Gulf war, just about everyone knows who he is. The only possible GOP candidate who might have equal recognition is former Vice President Dan Quayle. But while just about everyone gained a favorable impression of Powell, the negative opinions about Mr. Quayle abound.
About now someone is bound to be asking: But are you certain that Powell is a Republican? No. Like most military officers - certainly generals and admirals - Powell has kept his political views to himself. It seems that Powell was a Democrat or, at least, came out of a Democratic-voting family. That probably is correct.
But Powell thrived militarily when Republicans were in the presidency, first Ronald Reagan and then George Bush. And he was known to have become particularly close to Mr. Bush during the war; they remain warm friends.
My guess is that if Bush would call Powell on the phone and say: ``The country needs you, and I'm asking that you make the race for president as a Republican,'' the general would give careful consideration to making such a move. It might take some other calls from leading Republicans to pull Powell into the fray. It took similar persuasion from prominent Republicans to make a presidential candidate out of Ike.
Actually, Mr. Eisenhower was first wooed by President Truman. Although stories differ on how it was done and when it happened, it seems that Harry Truman got the word to Eisenhower that he would back him to become his successor in the White House - and that Eisenhower declined. That was before the Republicans went after Eisenhower. Even then Ike played hard to get for quite a while. There's persuasive evidence, in fact, that the general didn't want to get involved in politics.
There wasn't the void among possible Republican winners of the presidency back then that there seems to be now. Sen. Robert Taft was raring to go and came very close to beating the popular Eisenhower in the contest for the nomination.
For now, there seems to be a Republican vacuum. There's some talk about Jack Kemp, Richard Cheney, James Baker, Phillip Gramm, Quayle and others as possible candidates. But at this point all these politicians are exceedingly quiet and don't look like people who could unseat Clinton, particularly if the president is doing fairly well come 1996.
There's Bob Dole, of course. But his appeal doesn't reach much beyond the Republicans - and the political outreach must be much wider than that for a GOP candidate to gain the presidency. Into this void Colin Powell could leap and, in my judgement, prosper.