Some friends and advisers of Colin L. Powell say they now believe he is likely to seek the Republican presidential nomination, noting that he has been consulting with a wide range of political figures and painstakingly studying a possible campaign.
The retired general apparently has not disclosed his intentions to even his closest associates, some of whom say they do not know whether he has made up his mind.
But as Robert M. Teeter, a GOP political operative and Powell admirer, put it Friday: "There are a lot of signs he's leaning toward running and he would be a huge bear of a candidate."
"The question is whether he can win the Republican nomination. And the answer is he can," said Teeter, chairman of then-President George Bush's 1992 reelection campaign. "That's not saying he would win it, but he would be a formidable candidate. And if he got nominated, he would be elected."
Other prominent Republicans who have conferred with Powell, including Marlin Fitzwater, a long-time Powell friend and former White House press secretary for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush, and Bill Kristol, who was Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff, also see a Powell candidacy as increasingly likely.
Powell "has been exploring it thoroughly and systematically and I'm not sure he's made up his mind, but I don't see him finding anything to deter him from running," Kristol said.
Fitzwater agreed. Powell is likely to enter the race, he said, "now that he's heard the call from the masses on his book tour and knows that this is his moment in history."
Powell, who counts many prominent Democrats among his friends, conferred for about an hour with former President Jimmy Carter last week at the Carter Center after winding up his book tour in Atlanta.
Although Carter declined to discuss the nature of their conversation, a longtime associate of the former President quoted him as saying Powell left Carter with "the distinct impression" that he is planning to run for the GOP nomination. Powell reportedly asked Carter numerous questions about how he campaigned and raised funds in his 1976 race for the presidency.
For his part, Powell has kept his own counsel. But in recently canceling a speaking engagement scheduled for early next month at Missouri Western State College, he told the school's president he needed to free up time to consider "the most momentous decision of my life," according to the Associated Press.
The entry of Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first African American in history that polls have indicated would have a serious chance at winning the presidency, would drastically alter the playing field for the 1996 campaign.
If Powell decides to enter the race, he would face especially strong opposition in the GOP's first crucial primary in New Hampshire. Dole maintains a strong lead over other announced candidates in the state, and campaign aides say some 28,000 volunteers already have signed up in support of the senator.
Former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), a key Dole supporter, said that while Powell would be a formidable candidate, Dole is "very well-organized in all the cities and towns and precincts."
"I still don't think he'll get in, but it would be a major impact and a two-man race for the nomination if he does," Rudman said.
Most recent preference polls have shown Powell with greater strength than either President Clinton or Dole, the Senate majority leader.
Despite all the campaigning Dole and others have done to date, a new nationwide poll by the Wirthlin Group, headed by Richard B. Wirthlin, a veteran of the Reagan presidency, shows that the 1996 race remains wide open. Almost half the voters are not firmly committed to the candidates of either party.
Only 55% of 1,018 respondents expressed an opinion when asked who they would "most like to see become the next President," Wirthlin said. Of those who did have an opinion, 15% chose Powell and only 5% picked Dole.
The poll, released this week, contrasts with one six weeks earlier that showed Dole at 9% and Powell at 5%. Clinton scored 20% in the latest poll, down two points after six weeks.
Fitzwater and other sources said the fact that Dole has been consistently running behind Clinton in recent preference polls while Powell runs ahead of the President in most of them has put pressure on Powell to enter the race.
Others whom Powell has conferred with include former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served as Bush's chief of staff.
Although some of Powell's friends say they believe the overwhelming reception he received on his monthlong, 27-city tour to promote his best-selling book may have pointed him toward making the race, Powell reportedly told some associates that his decision was more difficult at the end of the tour than before he began it.
His wide consultations made him better understand the complexities and challenges of mounting a campaign, Powell was quoted as saying.
Also, some of his associates say family concerns might yet deter him from running. His wife, Alma, has said that although she would support a decision to run, she personally does not favor it and would be concerned that the campaign trail might be especially dangerous for an African American.
When Powell finished the book tour he indicated he would announce his decision by Thanksgiving. Friends have advised him that if he's going to run he needs to announce as soon as possible in order to start fund raising and get a campaign organization in place.
As interest in Powell's possible candidacy has grown, Dole for the most part has ignored it. But earlier this week, he insisted he was not perturbed about the prospect of Powell's candidacy. "In politics you have two days when you're very popular--the day before you get in and the day you get out," he said. "He isn't in yet."
But Powell's maneuvering and the senator's slippage in the polls have caused Dole's campaign, as well as Clinton's, to take notice and reconsider strategy.
A Dole campaign adviser, who declined to be identified, said: "I've been totally convinced for some time that Powell is coming into the race as a Republican and it's going to have an impact on raising money and everything else. I don't know whether the senator believes he's coming in or not."
A senior Clinton aide said the President's campaign has assumed that in drawing up a strategic plan, it should prepare for a run against the best possible Republican candidate. The aide added: "A race with Powell in it would be a lot tighter because he is a candidate with more pluses than minuses.
"We've been hearing from some people who are convinced Powell's going to run," the aide said, "but we don't obsess about it."