A vice president Colin Powell?

Once again the much-respected and highly articulate retired Gen. Colin Powell was a speaker at the Memorial Day commemoration on Washington's Mall. As the crowd cheered the man who helped steer the military action that implemented President Bush's Gulf War policy, it was a reminder, at least to me, of the 1996 presidential campaign and of what might have been.

It was about this time four years ago that I was telling readers I had information that General Powell was seriously considering a run for the presidency. No, this information did not come from the general himself. But a friend of the general - an influential public figure - had told me that he had talked to Powell and that the general "is moving in that direction." That informant also told me that a group of highly respected citizens was working behind the scenes to "draft" Powell.

But - publicly - Powell was providing no support for the idea that he would run. Indeed, by the time I had over a period of several weeks written columns about Powell's plans, I was finding myself pretty much alone among observers who thought the general might still get into the race.

Then, a short time later, Powell said for all to hear that he simply wasn't going to run. It was a Sherman-like statement. I went back to my "source," who explained that Powell had wanted to run but his wife said "no" and he was complying with her wishes. Indeed, he had hoped to change her mind.

And he might have won if he had run. The hardest part would have been the primaries, where early front-runner Bob Dole was already lining up support and raising lots of money. But I was convinced then, as I am now, that a Powell announcement of candidacy would have brought him an army of supporters and all the money he needed. And the polls back then were showing Powell to be the most popular of the possible GOP candidates - among both whites and blacks.

So I think he could have beaten Dole and the other Republicans. And, I believe, in a race against Clinton, he would have been able to come out ahead. It must be remembered that Clinton was really quite vulnerable: He was never able - in '92 or '96 - to pull in 50 percent of the vote.

And now what's next for Powell?

Despite the passing of years when retired military men usually fade from view, Powell has continued to stay on stage.

He and what he has to say and write continue to hold the nation's respect, too. So when he talks to black youths and tells them they must make the most of their growing opportunities - they listen. And when he says his policy is to go to war only if victory is guaranteed by overwhelming force, this criticism of our bombing-only approach to subduing the Serbs is widely noted.

Make no mistake about it: Colin Powell still would greatly strengthen a Republican presidential ticket. George W. Bush has done well with the black vote in his state of Texas. But across the country blacks are nearing 100 percent in their support of Clinton - and much of this backing would go to Al Gore or any Democratic presidential candidate. But Powell, as Bush's running-mate, would win over a considerable amount of that vote.

Powell remains popular with whites too, among conservatives as well as moderates. Indeed, a Bush-Powell ticket would be most formidable.

But would Powell be available?

After all, Bob Dole beckoned to Powell in '96 and the general declined the running-mate opportunity.

My informant back then had told me that Mrs. Powell's veto would not apply to the vice presidential spot on the ticket. Then why did Powell say "no" to Dole? I'd say because he wasn't too inspired by Dole's message.

So my guess is that Powell is still available as a vice presidential candidate for a running-mate he would like to serve with and, more importantly, for someone who is putting forward a program, both domestic and foreign, that the general could enthusiastically endorse.

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