A Political Pilgrim's Progress to the Right

IF he looks like a candidate and walks like a candidate and talks like a candidate, he is probably a candidate. And so, having kept careful watch on the changing positions of my fellow South Bronxite, fellow City College graduate, Gen. Colin Powell, I have concluded that he probably is a Republican candidate.

When potential candidates think of potential voters, they behave quite differently from ordinary people. So, for example, when Louis Farrakhan announced on television that he was inviting General Powell to his Million Man March, Powell wavered in his response.

He talked to Farrakhan on the telephone, and Farrakhan later told Newsweek Powell said he would try to make the march if he could shift his schedule. (He was scheduled to be in New York, signing books at Barnes & Noble.) Farrakhan said he responded that the general didn't have to come personally - he could just send a message. Powell replied by fax that he would address the question on CBS Television on the morning of the march.

On CBS, Powell, while praising the marchers and their uplifting purpose, called Farrakhan's anti-Semitism ''a disgrace'' and compared his racism to the racism of Detective Mark Fuhrman. Clearly, Powell had gotten some advice on how to position himself between the time of the ''warm'' telephone conversation that Farrakhan reported and the time he went on television to embrace the marchers and denounce their leader.

More dramatic was this political pilgrim's progress toward the Republican right. Where he had said on ABC that he didn't like a religious agenda becoming a political agenda, he now said on CBS, ''I am generally in line with the Christian right, although we disagree on some of the legislative agenda.'' Where he had said that he opposed Newt Gingrich's Contract With America as ''a little too harsh,'' he now said, ''I support most elements of the Contract With America,'' and he praised Gingrich as the ''leader of the revolution.'' Where Powell had said that he supported abortion rights, he now hedged by saying that ''I am not in favor of abortion,'' and that ''for now'' he opposes federal funding of abortion.

Phrases like ''Child of the New Deal'' and ''Rockefeller Republican'' have disappeared from the general's lexicon. One heard more of ''mainstream Republican'' and of the Democratic Party as being ''brain-dead.''

As his book tour came to a close, Powell was being asked more and more questions triggered by the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Farrakhan march, questions about racial polarization in America and whether he, as president, could help to bridge the gulf. In Dearborn, Mich., speaking with great restraint, he said, ''Maybe, by occupying such a position, I would have a level of sensitivity that might not exist in other candidates.''

General Powell knows that he commands much greater support in opinion polls from whites than from African-Americans. But, he was cheered to learn that 73 percent of participants in the Million Man March, a thousand of whom were polled by The Washington Post, had a favorable view of him.

When Powell retired to consider his great decision, he no longer sounded like a military man, but more like someone who had studied a script written by his political adviser, Kenneth Duberstein, onetime Reagan chief of staff. Before our very eyes he seemed to be transformed from soldier to politician. Soon, he says, he will announce when he is going to announce. If the day is Veteran's Day, Saturday, Nov. 11, you can start placing your bet that he is running for the Republican nomination.

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