A group of prominent conservative activists attacked the character and positions of retired Gen. Colin Powell on Thursday and vowed to unleash thousands of volunteers against him if he runs for the Republican presidential nomination.
The conservatives said they decided to launch their opposition effort because they believe that Powell is too liberal on a host of issues from taxes to abortion. They said they are concerned that Powell’s popularity has grown so great that he could divide the party if he gets into the race.
One speaker, Morton Blackwell, the Republican national committeeman from Virginia, went as far as to suggest that some conservatives are promoting Powell only because he is black.
“The handful of conservatives who are booming the Powell candidacy have taken leave of their senses,” Blackwell said. “If Gen. Powell were a white general holding these views, they would not consider for a moment supporting him for our party’s nomination. He is wrong on the major public policy issues. If he claims to shift to the right, he’ll sound like Bill Clinton.”
In another jab, Paul M. Weyrich of the Free Congress Committee warned Powell to stay out of the race, adding that his opposition stems from “character” questions. He called Powell the “Trojan horse of the Establishment.”
“Like the figure from Gilbert and Sullivan, he became ‘ruler of the queen’s navy’ by polishing the handle on the big front door” rather than through his own military achievements, Weyrich said.
Another activist, Carol Long of the National Right to Life Committee, vowed that thousands of anti-abortion volunteers would work against Powell. “When pro-life citizens spring into action - and they will - the bubble that the media has blown around Colin Powell will burst,” Long said.
But the assemblage of activists put together by the American Conservative Union may have been undermined by the fact that many of those who spoke Thursday support other candidates.
The ACU’s chairman, David Keene, who organized Thursday’s event, acknowledged under questioning that he is a longtime friend and supporter of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, although Keene said he is not being paid by Dole’s campaign. Several others, Blackwell among them, said they support Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
Still, the groups that gathered Thursday, including the Christian Coalition, have a combined total of hundreds of thousands of active members who typically are conservative Republicans.
While it is far from clear whether the groups could affect Powell’s chances, they might be able to orchestrate a negative direct-mail and television campaign against Powell. The groups frequently get involved in legislative and election battles, with varying impact.
No member of Congress or any elected official attended the event.
Indeed, while the gathering was touted as a conservative blockade against Powell, it also served to underscore the deep divisions with the party about the retired general.
A poll released Thursday by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that 38 percent of Republicans surveyed backed Dole and 34 chose Powell.
Some leading conservatives who did not attend Thursday’s press conference - such as former Education Secretary William Bennett and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp - have spoken positively about a Powell candidacy.
The underlying message Thursday was that Powell’s generally favorable publicity off a recent book tour could be countered by an aggressive and negative attack, something that most politicians expect but which Powell has yet to experience on a campaign level.
A Powell spokeswoman said she had no comment on the criticisms.
Charles Kelly, managing director of the Citizens for Colin Powell, which is working independently to promote the candidacy, attended the press conference and leveled a counterattack on the activists.
“I was revolted at these people who preach virtue while deliberately distorting the truth,” Kelly said. “These people make a good living off their direct mail business” that solicits contributions from conservatives. “They must really be frightened that a unifying popular candidate is going to eliminate their market for paranoia and distrust. What makes you think these guys have anyone behind them?”
xxxx VOICES AGAINST POWELL Among those leveling criticisms Thursday against Colin Powell were: Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, delivered a written statement saying the potential candidate is “to the left of center of where the country is today.” Reed said Powell “has indicated that he’s pro-abortion, against voluntary school prayer, in favor of affirmative action” and “he’s willing to accept some forms of gun control.” Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, who has advised the Dole and Gramm campaigns, said, “The surest way to sunder the conservative coalition that has brought the GOP to the zenith of its influence in modern America would be to nominate an individual whose credo drags the party into the ‘mushy middle.”’ Phyllis Schlafly, an anti-abortion activist and president of the Eagle Forum, said in a statement delivered by an aide that Powell comments about being a “Rockefeller Republican” disqualified him as a viable GOP candidate. “Nelson Rockefeller represented everything this party has vigorously rejected for more than 30 years.”