Washington awaits the 'Rockefeller Republican'

US election: As Colin Powell's possible candidacy stirs up mutinous feelings on the right, he continues to confuse his critics
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The epochal announcement is still a week or two away. But even before retired general Colin Powell has said whether he will seek the 1996 Republican nomination, the very notion of his candidacy is reopening old fissures in the party, and generating a rebellion among many conservatives.

Pro-choice on abortion, a supporter of affirmative action and gun control, General Powell was never going to be a poster boy for the "social conservative" wing of the Republican party. But yesterday brought the most powerful co-ordinated protest yet, as a dozen luminaries of the ideological right gathered here to denounce the most popular figure in American public life as a Clinton Democrat hiding behind a string of military ribbons.

The individuals themselves, including Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, may be scarcely household names. But their presence on the podium offers a foretaste of the vitriol General Powell can expect to face should he take the presidential plunge.

That, of course, is the riddle which consumes all Washington, and one the former Joint Chiefs chairman has promised to answer perhaps as early as next weekend, but in any case by Thanksgiving Day, in late November. In the meantime, the contest for the nomination has been frozen, with the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, far ahead.

The one small splash has been made by the businessman Malcolm "Steve" Forbes, whose saturation television ad campaign promoting a flat tax has pushed him into second or third place in New Hampshire, where the crucial first primary takes place next February. But the rest of the field, even the heavy-spending Senator Phil Gramm and the stridently right-wing Pat Buchanan, are simply treading water as the world waits for the Powell word.

Should he enter the race, polls suggest he would jump into a dead-heat with Senator Dole among likely Republican primary voters, but with a far better chance of defeating President Clinton in the presidential election. Moreover, Powell as candidate would probably drive most of the field out of the contest completely.

Already though he has exposed as a fallacy what had once been an axiom of Republican presidential politics - that in the primary season, woe betide the candidate who did not pander to the religious, anti-abortion and pro-family right.

In fact, General Powell would be the first choice of one in three likely primary voters, a New York Times/CBS poll survey found this week. Contrary to the received wisdom, his pro-choice views are not anathema to the party faithful. Only one in five Republicans would heed calls from conservative Christian leaders to boycott candidates who do not oppose abortion.

Faced with these home truths, the Republican right has split. Yesterday's speakers, like Mr Buchanan, warn that a Republican convention would never swallow General Powell's liberal social views. Mr Buchanan hints that if the party's platform endorsed them he might mount an independent candidacy from the right, something which could siphon off enough Republican votes to re-elect Mr Clinton. "Activists in droves may walk out of the party," Mr Bauer predicted.

Not perhaps since 1976, when conservatives forced President Gerald Ford to drop the liberal Nelson Rockefeller as his running mate, have such mutinous feelings been stirred on the right. General Powell often describes himself as a "Rockefeller Republican," but Mr Weyrich declared: "The ongoing conservative revolution in this country is a revolution against the Powells and Rockefellers of this world."

Other conservatives speak warmly of him - among them the former Reagan and Bush cabinet members Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp, and William Kristol, once chief of staff for Dan Quayle but now ardently promoting a Powell run.Why, they argue, throw away a real chance of the White House for a likely loser in Bob Dole ?

That calculation has produced some uncharacteristic caution from the most celebrated conservative of all, Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr Gingrich faces an awkward choice. A Powell victory would put into the White House a man less than wholly enamoured of the Speaker's "Contract with America". But if Mr Gingrich runs, he would have to give up his present job, while every poll shows he would be trounced by Mr Clinton.