Republicans split on Powell's possible run

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON The allure of Colin Powell to Republicans hungry for an inspirational standard-bearer has ignited squabbling among party conservatives, who are deeply split over whether to welcome or disparage the popular retired general.

Powell's emergence also revives a debate over whether the GOP should be a ''big tent'' welcoming a variety of views or should hold to a firm conservative ideology that was solidified with the party's takeover of the House and Senate last fall.

Even though Powell remains cagey about whether he will actually run for president, many Republican activists are aghast that fellow conservative stalwarts are urging him into the party's nomination process.

Eyeing opinion polls that show Powell would run strongly in the GOP field, they worry he might attract Republican voters who don't even agree with him on issues like abortion, affirmative action and welfare. Powell has expressed moderate views on those questions that appear out of step with the party's congressional momentum.

But some conservatives seem willing to overlook that in their quest for a strong candidate. Their embrace of the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman is prompting a pre-emptive campaign against Powell by more rigid conservatives.

''I'm taking some heat from some friends on the right,'' said former Education Secretary William Bennett, who has not formally endorsed Powell but is a friend and said he would consider it.

Bennett, author of the bestselling ''Book of Virtues,'' astonished many conservatives when he suggested he could overlook Powell's support of abortion rights and focus on his other qualities leadership, family values and patriotism.

''I think he could wallop Clinton,'' Bennett said in an interview.

Former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and GOP conservative analyst William Kristol also have urged a Powell candidacy. Arianna Huffington, a party activist and wife of unsuccessful California Senate candidate Michael Huffington, lavished praise on him last week.

Huffington accused the GOP front-runner, Senate Majority leader Bob Dole, of ''political hackmanship,'' and said in a Wall Street Journal column that even though she doesn't agree with all Powell's views, he ''has made it impossible to continue accepting a lackluster standard-bearer for the Republican Party.''

Spearheading the countercharge is Gary Bauer, head of the Focus on the Family group.

''It's curious to me that some Republican leaders are flirting with a candidate who has positions the exact opposite of what have been the winning issues,'' in last year's elections, Bauer said.

He faxed a memo to Republican leaders last week saying that despite Powell's leadership and military record, his views ''contain enough ammunition to rattle economic and social conservatives alike.''

Others share his opinion of Powell.

''All his views are out of step with the coalition we have built over the years,'' said Paul Weyrich, a leading conservative voice and president of National Empowerment Television. He made that case Wednesday at his weekly luncheon with conservative activists.

He is worried because ''people see something'' they are seeking in Powell, Weyrich said. He described talking to an Ohio conservative activist who was excited about Powell.

''He disagrees with everything you worked for,'' Weyrich told her. ''She said that's not important. What's important is that he's a strong leader and he's a moral person.''

The Powell debate puts conservatives generally in one of three camps:

They want to freeze him out because he is not one of them.

They will compromise some ideological principles because they see him as a strong candidate against Clinton.

They profess to be unconcerned because Powell is too moderate to win the party's nomination.

In the latter category, Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly said Powell ''appears to have disdain for the people who the media call the religious right.'' She cited the fact he ''coolly advertised'' his support of abortion rights.

''The people I know care about people who've got a record on the social moral and cultural or economic issues. He doesn't have any record,'' she said.

The Powell issue sharpens GOP tension over whether the party should accommodate a spectrum of views, in what former party chairman Lee Atwater dubbed the ''big tent.''

Some see that inclusive approach as a step backward from the conservative advances under former President Reagan and now the GOP-controlled Congress.

Powell, as president, ''would be the death knell for Republican policies,'' predicted Peter Flaherty, chairman of the Conservative Campaign Fund. He also worried Powell's candidacy would undermine Dole.

But Powell himself said his reception proves there is ''a broader spectrum in the Republican Party than just the views of the conservative Christian Right.''

''While I waited for the death sentence to be read three or four days after I started saying those things, to the contrary, there appears to be support for moderation,'' he said last week while selling his autobiography in Washington state.

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