FOR many American voters, a lot of the excitement may have just gone out of 1996 presidential politics.
If poll numbers were to be believed, retired Gen. Colin Powell was a figure who commanded national respect and loomed as a formidable and energizing White House candidate.
By declining to run, as seemed likely at press time, his reputation will remain unsullied by the slings of a campaign - and attention will now focus on the remaining candidates, who could look wanting by comparison.
''I think as far as the people are concerned this is going to be a downer,'' says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. ''Powell, for a whole bunch of reasons, was someone a lot of people looked up to.''
Of course, the campaign hasn't really started rolling yet. GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole could build a groundswell of popular support as he rolls toward the nomination. One of the other Republican candidates could break out of the pack and establish a national identity by early primary success - something that's happened many times in past presidential elections. And President Clinton himself is a formidable and emotional campaigner.
But if the contest comes down to Dole vs. Clinton, as seems likely at this point, next year's electoral struggle might feature something unusual in presidential politics: voter apathy.
''We may see a big decrease in turnout,'' judges Professor Wayne.
As of this writing the retired Joint Chiefs chairman had not yet officially declined to throw his uniform cap in the political ring. But in advance of a scheduled afternoon announcement of Powell's intentions, Republican sources began calling around Washington indicating that the decision was negative.
''It's an exciting day around here,'' ruefully noted a Powell adviser reached at the general's suburban Virginia office.
The level of interest in Powell's future reflects the effect that even his noncandidacy has had on the Republican field. Planning and strategy for many nominees, political contributors, and strategists have been frozen as the political world has waited to see which way he would turn.
A ''no-go'' decision would appear to be a logical outcome of Powell's essentially cautious character. While he would be giving up a shot at sitting in the Oval Office in '96, he wouldn't be eschewing all possibility of high political power.
He remains a strong contender for all sorts of top positions in any Republican administration, such as secretary of state, or even vice president. By declining to enter partisan politics he might even preserve the option of sometime serving under President Clinton.
His standing with the public is not likely to decline by not becoming a presidential nominee. He will remain a figure whose appeal cuts across racial and economic boundaries - a useful image to have if one thinks of reentering public service at any point in the future.
And his family may be happy. It has been widely noted that his wife, Alma, has no enthusiasm for the rigors and dangers of a political campaign. The recent tragic assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may be one reason Powell moved up his announcement from a previous target date of around Thanksgiving.
There are two obvious big winners if Powell does not run: Senator Dole (R) of Kansas, and President Clinton.
With the prospect of Powell entering the race no longer looming, Dole may begin to look more unstoppable. It has already been a good week for him: On Wednesday, he received the coveted endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill, giving him a leg up for the Granite State's crucial February primary.
''Dole was the biggest loser when Powell was in the polls,'' points out George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M. ''But all the Republican nominees are winners, really. Without Powell, they all have a better chance for the nomination.''
The Republican Party itself may be a loser, adds Mr. Edwards. Powell would have been a formidable candidate, pulling the party to the center and increasing its chances of unseating Clinton next fall.
If anything, the President may be even happier about a Powell noncandidacy than any Republican. Powell, after all, was the one prospective GOP nominee who could make inroads into core Democratic Party constituencies, such as the black vote.
''It was a real danger to the White House,'' notes Edwards.
With Powell out, attention is also sure to shift to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, who has said he is unlikely to run for president but has refused to flaty rule it out. Mr. Gingrich has said he wanted to know Powell's decision.
Powell was the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retiring in 1993 after a distinguished military career that included combat in Vietnam and service as a top adviser to three presidents. Since retirement, he has become a wealthy man for the first time, with speaking fees and runaway sales of his book.