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Powell Should Run While 'Moon is High'

DEAR General Powell: You seem to be getting all kinds of advice these days. I'm particularly concerned about those who are telling you to stay on the sidelines - that politics is not your game and that if you do decide to run for the presidency you will get nowhere at all. Some of these pundits are comparing you to Nelson Rockefeller who, they contend, was rejected by the Republican Party in his bid for the White House because he was too liberal.

Well, as Ross Perot is fond of saying, let's look at the facts. Back in the late '50s, Nelson Rockefeller, a recently elected New York governor, had become, almost overnight, the GOP's rising star. Eisenhower in the White House remained the party's most popular figure. But Rockefeller was next. Crowds of reporters followed him. People lined up to shake his hand. He, like Ike, had a warm smile. He charmed with a wink and his ''Hi fellah'' greeting.

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Rockefeller had barely walked into the governorship and he was being talked about widely as just the right person to succeed Ike. It wasn't a political boom for him - but it was a boomlet. A lot of people and, more importantly, a lot of Republicans didn't care for Vice President Nixon. They certainly hoped Rockefeller would edge out Nixon for the nomination in 1960.

I know much of this firsthand. Indeed, I was one of the reporters following along with Rocky when he took that trip around the United States in late 1959 to find out at the grass-roots level just how much support there was for him if he decided to run. After talking with a number of Republicans in several states, Rockefeller decided that he didn't have a chance of beating out Nixon for the nomination.

What happened, General, was that Rocky was talking to the wrong people. And I saw it happen.

One way or another and wherever he went, Rockefeller was met by Nixon supporters who, while treating him quite civilly, would steer him in the direction of public officials who, again, were backing Nixon. There were many key Republicans in the states Rocky visited who were turning away from Nixon and looking hopefully at Rockefeller but who never had a chance to talk to the New Yorker.

Back then the Wisconsin primary was a particularly important as well as early contest - one whose outcome, like the New Hampshire primary, could make or break a candidate. After Rockefeller flew out of Wisconsin, heading back home, I made my own check on his chances in that primary. I found there were a number of high-up, highly influential Republicans who had been shut out from talking to Rockefeller and who would have encouraged him to run. I also discovered some informal polling of Wisconsin voters that showed Rockefeller could beat Nixon - particularly since Democrats could cross over and vote Republican in the Wisconsin primary.

Rockefeller did make his presidential bid in 1964. But by that time his popularity had ebbed. His moment had passed. In later years Rocky admitted this. He once told me that he not only got bad political information from those he talked to on that trip but that his own political advisers had made a wrong call that year.

It's a bit trite, but it is often said that a candidate must run when the ''moon is high,'' at that point in his life when he is most likely to win. Rocky missed his moment because of poor advice. Yes, I think he would have edged out Nixon. And he might have beaten Kennedy. After all, Nixon only lost by a fingernail.

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General, I think the moon is high for you. Don't miss it because of bad advice.

Oh, yes, I am assuming you are a Republican - or that, at least, you lean in that direction. I get that distinct impression from your book. It seems to me that you are a moderate Republican - like Nelson Rockefeller.

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