A day after Bob Dole emerged as the inevitable Republican presidential nominee, attention swung to Colin Powell, who might or might not run with him. The Powell mystique was back in full force.
Even Dole was caught up in speculation about whether the former general could be induced to join the ticket.
Powell is “the most popular person in the country, period,” said historian Stephen Ambrose, who chronicled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ascension under comparable circumstances 44 years ago.
But Powell’s hold on the American imagination is greater than Ike’s was, said Ambrose, a Powell-for-president booster until the general ruled out running last November.
Republican pollster Linda DiVall said Powell’s decision to foreclose a presidential bid in 1996 was carried off with such grace that it only enhanced his appeal. Americans were enchanted by both Powell and his wife, she said: “The departure left them yearning.”
In recent months, Powell’s allure seems to have increased. His autobiography was a runaway best-seller. He attracted big, enthusiastic crowds on his book tour.
But he’s kept a relatively low profile, staying away from the TV talk shows. With scores of invitations to chose from, he agreed to two commencement speeches - at Northern Virginia Community College and Bowie State, a predominantly black university in Maryland.
Still, he commands public devotion. A pollster asked a group of voters in Iselin, N.J., to engage in a game of word association regarding some political figures. About Powell, the words were all gushy: “wise,” “intelligent,” ‘trustworthy.”
Polls in recent days suggest Powell, who is black, would help Dole, partly by drawing black votes from the Democratic Party’s base. In one, Dole lost when matched against Clinton but a Dole-Powell ticket beat Clinton-Gore.
About all this, Powell said nothing Wednesday. But Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff and a Powell adviser, said the general had not budged.
“He said it in November,” Duberstein said. “He meant it.”
Still, some old political hands said that if Dole presses, Powell could resist only so long.