California's favourite son falls by the wayside

White House race: General Powell keeps them guessing
Click to follow
The Independent Online
While the undeclared runner, Colin Powell, basks in a nation's unquestioning adulation, Governor Pete Wilson of California - in his own words ``the man the White House fears most'' - is struggling to keep afloat his declared but floundering candidacy for the Republican nomination to challenge President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Throughout the summer Mr Wilson, four-time election winner in the state that is the biggest electoral prize of all, was reckoned the greatest threat to Bob Dole in the Republican field. Instead, he has folded his tent for the Iowa caucuses, the first binding vote of the primary season, while reports are rife of fund-raising difficulties. In California, meanwhile, his popularity approaches record lows and polls show him running a distant second to the Senate Majority Leader.

Twice governor and twice senator, Mr Wilson is never to be written off but thus far the breakthrough has not happened, and the field - perhaps to be augmented shortly by Malcolm (Steve) Forbes, the millionaire publisher and dedicated supply-sider - is far more crowded.

As the Wilson camp explains it, the decision to forgo Iowa was a strategic move to concentrate resources on the bigger early prizes of the electoral season, the New Hampshire primary first and foremost, then Florida and the South, and New England, where Massachusetts's Governor William Weld is champion of his cause.

But the best Mr Wilson manages is a distant second or third to Mr Dole. As front-runner, the Kansas Senator arouses little enthusiasm, but poll after poll shows him ahead by a four-to-one margin. The latest, by Time/CNN, gives Mr Dole 39 per cent against 11 per cent for Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, his closest challenger.

How different for General Powell, satisfying his country's craving for novelty even if his precise intentions are as indecipherable as ever. Already the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has swept the media primary. The launch this weekend of his autobiography, My American Journe, eclipsed anything of its kind in years. In the Washington suburbs where the general appeared on Saturday, 5,000 people turned up, by one estimate, while 3,312 copies of the book were signed.

All the while the carefully dispensed interviews continue, each brushing in a tiny piece of a still largely empty political canvas. In the latest, with David Frost, viewers here will learn next week that running for the vice-presidency ``is not something that appeals to me''. For the first time, he conclusively rules out running as a Democrat and hints that even if he passes on 1996, he might run four years later. Meanwhile Mr Dole said on TV yesterday he would like General Powell to join any future Dole administration. "I'd certainly want him in my administration somewhere," he insisted.

Polls suggest that, while General Powell's heart may beat independent, his chances of success would be far greater as a Republican. The Time/CNN poll shows him beating Mr Clinton in a two-man contest by 46 to 38 per cent. Were he to compete as an independent, he would finish only third.

Another poll shows a majority of Republicans want him as a candidate, even though his support for affirmative action and abortion rights sets him at odds with the conservative activists who dominate the Republican primaries.