No black Eisenhower this time round

Beating retreat: General Colin Powell's cautious military instinct has dictated that now is the right time for a strategic withdrawal
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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

So there will be no "black Eisenhower", at least this time around. To the universal relief of his putative rivals, but the wider disappointment of millions of his countrymen, a retired general and best-selling author will not attempt to become President Colin Powell, the first African-American to win the White House.

For that America must thank a soldier's instinctive caution before committing himself to battle, his reluctance to pay the price in human privacy and dignity that a presidential run demands, and - perhaps most influential of all - the misgivings of his wife and family, only deepened this last weekend by the killer who gunned down the Prime Minister of Israel.

All along a Powell candidacy had been tinged with unreality, borne aloft on the warm winds of uncritical media enthusiasm and opinion polls suggesting that of the declared and potential Republican runners, he had by far the best chance of unseating President Bill Clinton. But beyond bland generalities that identified him as relatively conservative on economic matters but liberal on social issues, he had never faced detailed scrutiny of his views.

Signs had multiplied that what lay ahead might not be coronation by acclamation. The religious right and "social conservatives", ferociously opposed to abortion and gun control, had served notice they would fight General Powell tooth and nail.

Weighing too on a man who never really felt the "burning fire" that would have enabled him to put up with the obligatory indignities of seeking the White House, was the knowledge that his tussle for nomination with Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, would have been far from a walkover. In one recent poll, Mr Dole remained the favourite of Republican voters.

Indeed, by coincidence or otherwise, a few hours before General Powell was to make his announcement in a suburban Washington hotel, Mr Dole was in New Hampshire, receiving the coveted endorsement of the state's highly popular Republican Governor, Stephen Merrill. Political endorsements may not be what they used to be. But in the crucial first primary, where General Powell had to do well, the benefit of Mr Merrill's potent organisation might be decisive. That too must have counted with a military man celebrated for weighing every factor before making up his mind.

In the end, though, two other considerations were probably decisive. One was the growing tension in race relations here, in the wake of the OJ Simpson verdict and the Million Man March on Washington. Increasingly, a possible Powell candidacy had turned into a symbol of America's yearning for racial healing, a worthy enough sentiment - but not one to the liking of a man who had consciously tried to keep his race out of his politics. "One day a black man will be President," General Powell said yesterday, "It will happen, but it won't be me."

The final blow may have come last Saturday, with the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, another soldier turned political leader. All along Alma Powell has been opposed to her husband's running, not least because of the security risks. What price that a white fanatic would not try to kill General Powell, just as James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King 27 years ago?

So, like a clutch of distinguished Republicans before him he is pulling out, and the beneficiaries of his decision are - every candidate already in the race. Mr Clinton is spared the prospect of running against a man who beats him comfortably in every theoretical match-up, and who would perforce have made inroads into the black vote, the most loyal Democratic constituency of all. Were General Powell to run as an independent, he would probably split the anti-Clinton vote to the latter's advantage, just as Ross Perot did in 1992.

On the Republican side, Mr Dole is now the favourite for the nomination. As for the losers, they include national media thirsting for new faces to liven up what they judge a lacklustre Republican field, not to mention Powell backers and the millions of Americans who would have liked to see him run. That will be the challenge facing Mr Dole and the rest of his Republican rivals - to prove to a sceptical public they are more than shopsoiled second best. As Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant said, "As a Democrat I'm happy, as an American I'm a little sad. We needed candidates like that."

Presidential almost-rans who fell by the wayside

James Baker. Former Reagan administration Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State from 1989 to 1993. After expressing an early interest in running, he simply faded from view and never made an official announcement that he would not be a candidate. The main deterrents were his close identification with President Bush, and an aversion to the rigours of campaigning.

Dick Cheney. Former House Republican whip and Defense Secretary from 1989 to 1993, with solid conservative credentials and strong business backing.

Said he would not run on 3 January 1995. "The more I though about it, the more the process you have to subject yourself to weighed upon my mind. I concluded I wasn't ready to pay the price."

Jack Kemp. Former Housing Secretary and architect of Reagan-era "supply-sid", tax-cutting economics. Pulled out on 30 January 1995. Reasons included a dislike of fundraising and unhappiness with the growing influence of the religious right "social conservatives" in the Republican party. He also claimed that his pro-growth, tax-cutting ideas were now party orthodoxy.

Dan Quayle. Vice-President from 1989 to 1993, popular on the religious right. Took himself out of consideration on 9 February 1995, after having given every impression he had resolved to run. He said he took the decision "to put family first and forgo the disruption of a third straight national campaign". Polls suggested he had little chance of the nomination.

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