Despite some indications to the contrary, it seems to me that the suggestion that Gen. Colin Powell could end up as Bob Dole's running mate is taking on credibility.
After declaring himself unavailable for the presidential primaries - and talking as though he would not be willing to take any spot on the ticket this fall - General Powell has for months been playing the role of a political sideliner. As he hawked his autobiography, he spoke as a lecturer and not as a potential candidate. He did nothing to encourage those who would like to start a Powell boomlet for the vice presidency.
But then, quite recently, the general attended a fund-raiser for Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia and, with Dole at his side, provided the attendees with a look at what he could do as a crowd pleaser and glad-hander.
He performed beautifully. Furthermore, he gave many in the audience the impression that they were getting a preview of Powell, the vice presidential candidate.
When the subject of his being on the ticket was raised by reporters at the gathering, Powell was a little playful. Smiling, he said to one inquirer: "I'm sure the senator (Dole) and I will have many conversations in the months ahead."
But later he said his position of disinterest in the vice presidency was "unchanged."
As a longtime interpreter of what is known as "political speak," I find Powell's words just about what most potential vice presidential candidates usually say before they are tapped for the job. Indeed, two such persons - Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin - were expressing similar disinterest in the No. 2 spot at recent Monitor breakfasts. But they doubtless would grab the opportunity - if offered.
Oh, I know that since that fund-raiser Dole has expressed doubts that he could change Powell's mind about taking the No. 2 spot on the ticket. But he hasn't ruled out an "August surprise" - a full-court press on the general at the convention in which he might well persuade Powell to be his running mate with a "do-it-for-your-party-and-your-country" plea.
Yes, I do think the general has left the door slightly open. My informants still tell me he could be talked into running if (1) he likes Dole's message and (2) he thinks that his presence on the ticket could contribute substantially to a victory.
Several days before Powell went to Hampton, Va., and appeared at that fund-raiser alongside Bob Dole, the Kansas senator had made a move that could have pleased Powell very much. Dole's new position on abortion - where he remains a pro-lifer but extends a hand of tolerance to pro-choicers - does this if nothing else: It makes room for pro-choicer Powell.
Critics condemn the ambiguity of the Dole position. But he is saying the GOP tent is big enough for those who hold either of these points of view. And one insider has told me that Dole had Powell in mind when he "widened" his position.
Powell will have no trouble in accepting Dole's conservatism as it relates to the economy. But he would be willing to go on the ticket only if Dole holds himself out as a moderate on social issues. He would refuse to be the candidate of the far right.
So maybe Powell's appearance in Virginia, working the crowd alongside Dole, indicates he thinks Dole is making the Veep candidacy more palatable. But he doubtless wants more moderation from Dole.
I understand that Powell would also want to feel that by running, he could make a decisive difference in the outcome. My guess is that although Dole is bound to narrow the big Clinton lead (indeed, new polls show this already coming about) the presence of Powell on the ticket will, by convention time, be an essential ingredient for a Dole victory.
Although Dole is bound to narrow the Clinton lead, the presence of Powell on the ticket will be an essential ingredient for a Dole victory.