'WILL he run?'' is the biggest question being asked in Washington these days. You don't have to identify who ''he'' is. Everyone knows the question relates to Colin Powell and his intentions.
Indeed, if there is a public focus on politics today, it is on what the general is deciding to do. Certainly, very few people are paying much heed to what the field of Republican candidates is doing.
Powell, even before he says ''yea'' or ''nay'' about running, is a formidable political force.
A new Lou Harris-Gannett News Services national polling shows that among Republicans and Independents, Powell outdraws Dole 31 to 26 percent. Even more revealing of Powell's popularity, in nationwide polling of all voters the general beats President Clinton 47 to 31, while in another pairing Clinton defeats Dole 42 to 35. In a three-way race, it is Powell 31, Clinton 27, and Dole 24. It's very early, and so many changes lie ahead.
But this poll only confirms what several others have been showing: The Republicans have a possible winner in Colin Powell and a possible, if not likely, loser in their front-runner, Bob Dole.
While not taking sides, national GOP chairman Haley Barbour told journalists the other morning at a Monitor breakfast that he would ''welcome'' Powell into the party and the run for the nomination. Mr. Barbour did say that there was already a ''great'' group of Republicans in the race. But there was much warmth and appreciation in his comments about Powell.
Barbour has to know that the current bunch of candidates is, for the most part, stirring up little more than yawns among the voters and the media. He must see that Powell's participation in the contest would, immediately, push this GOP struggle onto center stage.
Asked if Powell's position in favor of affirmative action and choice on abortion would disqualify him as a Republican, Barbour said no, that there was ample room for such views within the big GOP ''tent.''
In fact, a new New York Times/CBS News poll indicates that these positions might actually help Powell. It found that 38 percent of expected primary voters describe themselves as pro-choice, while 33 percent describe themselves a pro-life.
Additionally, this polling found that only 6 percent of these voters say a candidate's position on abortion will be the single most important factor in their choice of candidate. Seventy-six percent say the Republican platform should ''stay away'' from specifically supporting a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion.
BUT is Powell, indeed, a Republican? From the general's excellent autobiography, ''My American Journey,'' we learn that his family was New Deal Democratic, with Franklin Roosevelt's picture on the wall. Powell also discloses that he voted for Kennedy and Johnson.
But his rise to military and government heights came under the auspices of Presidents Reagan and Bush, and he speaks highly of both. He also says he accepts much of the GOP agenda relating to the economy. My guess is that he'll end up calling himself a Republican ''moderate.''
Will the so-called ''religious right'' line up against Powell? Some of its leaders are indicating displeasure with Powell's views. But the New York Times/CBS poll found that 8 of 10 of those who say they will vote in the upcoming primaries don't think of themselves as members of the religious right.
At one point I asked Barbour how late Powell could enter the race and still be effective in the primaries. He said that someone who was well known nationally and ''who wouldn't have any trouble in quickly picking up all the money he needed'' could make a late decision.
How late? Barbour wouldn't say. But he did say he foresaw no convention deadlock, perhaps between Powell and Dole. He said the nomination winner would emerge clearly from the primaries.