DEAR Gen. Colin Powell:
Word keeps coming back to me from people close to you that you are increasingly interested in running for president next year -- but that you still don't see a realistic route by which you could reach that goal.
Well, the way to do it, as I see it, is to keep the door open to accept a second spot on the ticket. My understanding is that you are saying you wouldn't be willing to take that slot. But it seems to me that the political realities are such that the vice presidency could be your best means of reaching the presidency.
Yes, you should run in the presidential primaries next year. We don't know for sure whether you are a Republican or a Democrat -- or perhaps an independent. But my informants tell me that you are a Republican and point to your positions against gays in the military and for lowering taxes as indications you have GOP leanings.
I'm quite aware that pollsters give you a higher ''positive'' rating among Republican voters than any of the GOP aspirants.
For the last two years I have been trumpeting the idea that you could ride this popularity successfully through the primaries and into the White House. But of late I've become more and more convinced that you wouldn't make it through the GOP primaries.
Indeed, you might yet fool me on that. One scenario I've heard of would give you victories in Massachusetts, Georgia, Illinois, and Texas -- all ''open'' primaries where blacks could cross over to vote in the Republican Party -- and that would be enough to turn an otherwise close contest in your direction. Perhaps.
But I'm increasingly convinced that once your views on controversial issues are known -- and they will have to be disclosed the moment you jump into the fray -- your positive ratings will plummet. Where are you on affirmative action? I've read that you take a middle course on this. That alone might irritate a lot of voters on both sides of the issue. Where are you on abortion? And there are other ticklish positions you will have to unveil.
Oh, yes, I think you would make a good run of it. But while you would make the strongest Republican nominee, I think the Republican voters, controlled by conservatives these days, are bent on selecting a proven conservative, a candidate who has clearly shown his views in public life. They will probably like you -- your impressive military record appeals to everyone and particularly to the conservatives. But I think when going to the polls these Republicans are much more likely to vote for a Dole or a Gramm or an Alexander or someone else.
But if you make a good showing in the primaries -- and I'm sure you will -- the eventual GOP presidential candidate will be knocking at your door, asking that you join him on the ticket. Don't say ''no,'' general.
The vice presidency of itself can be a productive occupation. Al Gore is proving that. But there are other possibilities.
First, of course, the Republicans would have to win next year. There's at least one poll now that shows with you on the ticket Senator Dole wins handily over President Clinton.
Dole now is the leading GOP candidate. And he has indicated that he might step down after four years and let you have your chance -- if you are his vice president.
There are all kinds of possibilities that would open to you as a vice president. As a celebrity general and as the first black to rise that high in the US government you would be standing on a political mountain. You might run for president in four years -- certainly in eight years.
So you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by running for president next year. You might go all the way. But if not, the vice presidency beckons.
Again, don't say ''no'' to that possibility.