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GOP's Soldier of Fortune Assesses Powell

October 09, 1995|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — One thing we all can agree on is that Mike Huffington knows about being rich. So the ears perk up when the former candidate for U.S. Senate predicts that Colin Powell will conclude he now has enough personal wealth and can make himself available for the ultimate public service job.

Not that Huffington has inside information. But he can relate to money. Powell is not in Huffington's class; his millions number in single digits, not scores. Still, both are very financially secure.

This is how Huffington reads Powell and his thinking on the presidency: "He's made millions off his book--more than he ever thought he'd have in his life. Now, is he going to want to just go on tour and make more money? Or is he going to want to serve his country? I think he's going to run for President out of service to his country."

The retired general, who already has served his country for 35 years as an Army officer, received a $6.5-million advance for his autobiography. He also has been getting up to $60,000 per speech. Currently on a book-peddling tour, Powell says he'll decide by Thanksgiving whether to enter the presidential race.

To his "enormous surprise," Powell said last week, he already has concluded "you could have a black President. The longer I've been out on the road, the more persuaded I am."

Some seasoned politicians privately are skeptical, especially since O.J. Simpson's not guilty verdicts. There is talk of a possible anti-black backlash by white voters, spurred by TV scenes of African Americans cheering the verdicts as if the trial were a sporting event.

GOP pollster Gary Lawrence disagrees. Trial memories will fade and voters will refocus, he contends. "You can take circuses only so long, then you have to leave and go back to work. Besides, a lot of people don't look at Colin Powell as black."

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Huffington, still pondering his own political future, was hosting a reception at a recent Republican state convention in Palm Desert. Competing against the blare of rock music in a nightclub he had reserved, the former oil executive sang Powell's praise.

"He has character, he's clean, he's a leader and he wouldn't be caught up in the issue du jour," Huffington said. "Republicans aren't excited about Bob Dole. They're not excited about Phil Gramm. But Powell is exciting."

Nearby, GOP consultant Steven Hamilton--a black who grew up in Pasadena--said Powell's best bet would be as Sen. Dole's running mate. It's getting very late to start a presidential race, Hamilton said; he'd need lots of money and a big organization.

Yet, the more he thought about it, the more excited Hamilton got. "Powell could start reinforcing the collective psyche of blacks sitting in the city on welfare or in jail," he said. "He could stress that you've got to get out there and persevere and be self-sufficient, not just say, 'The whole world's racist and I can't make it.' Because, obviously, Powell has made it."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich supports Dole, but said a Powell candidacy "would be healthy for the party and for the nation. We need leaders all people can respect. I could see him bringing new voters into the party and reaching out to ethnics the way [Abraham] Lincoln did."

But many at this conclave of party activists weren't buying it.

"I don't think he has the stomach to run," said Al Hill, the Marin County GOP chairman.

Commented GOP strategist Ken Khachigian: "He'd be savaged. Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm would have a field day. Wait until he gets out there and starts acting like a general."

Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition: "He's very definitely not conservative enough. It takes more than being a family man and all those good things."

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GOP consultant Sal Russo, however, says the notion Powell is too moderate to survive Republican primaries "is nonsense."

"There are five things people are looking for in a President," Russo asserts, basing his thesis on recent focus groups. "A leader, a vision, a non-insider, an ability to make change and character. Powell passes four of those tests. He's not scoring on 'vision' now, but he can get there."

The consultant adds that "Powell's race is a plus because there are more whites who want to prove they're open-minded by voting for a black than there are people who would not vote for one."

And clearly, many black Democrats would cross party lines to vote for a Republican Powell.

The phrases most often heard with Powell's name are "race healer" and "Americans yearning for a leader." There's obviously a national vacuum for somebody to fill.

If he does decide to run, Powell's first fund-raising call probably should be to Mike Huffington.

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