With The General Out, Where Will Ce Os Line Up?

Edson D. de Castro, chief executive of Xenometrix Inc. in Boulder, Colo., was thrilled by the prospect of General Colin L. Powell running for President. Like many in Corporate America, de Castro was intrigued by the retired general's leadership skills and his mix of fiscal conservatism and social moderation. Now that Powell has ruled out the '96 race, de Castro, whose company makes toxicology testing-equipment company, is glumly mulling the options. He'll probably vote for "the least bad" choice--perhaps Bob Dole, although he views the Senate Majority Leader as a typical politician who "blows with the wind."

Similar sighs of disappointment were heard in executive suites across America on Nov. 8, when Powell bowed out after a tantalizing two-month tease. "To offer myself as a candidate for President requires a commitment and a passion...that, despite my every effort, I do not have for political life," Powell announced before a packed press conference in an Alexandria (Va.) hotel. Although he declared himself a Republican, he also ruled out a Vice-Presidential bid.

CHARISMA FACTOR. Powell's pullout might disappoint executives, but it positively thrills Dole, the undisputed frontrunner for the GOP nomination. The two men have similar views on most economic and foreign policy issues, although Dole has veered rightward on social issues in an attempt to court religious conservatives. Now, Dole stands to gain a large part of the 34% of Republican voters who had backed Powell.

The Kansas Senator certainly has friends in Corporate America. "Dole lacks the charisma that is popular in today's world, but he's been a pro-business senator for years," says U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice-Chairman Edwin Lupberger, CEO of Entergy Corp., a New Orleans-based electric utility. Without Powell in the race, "business will stick with the Establishment candidate, and that's Dole," surmises former George Bush adviser Peter B. Teeley, vice-president for government affairs at Amgen Inc.

Until he took his helmet out of the ring, though, it was Powell who seemed the first choice of business. A straw poll conducted on Sept. 28 at a BUSINESS WEEK CEO symposium found Powell the favorite of 41% of execs. Far behind were Dole at 19%, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at 9%, and President Clinton at 4%. "If I had one word to describe why business leaders are attracted to him, it would be `integrity,"' says William H. Donaldson, the recently retired chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

Some execs fret that Dole will face an uphill race against a President who is scrambling to recast himself as a centrist. And while Powell was a fresh outsider who could have changed the political dialogue, a Dole-Clinton contest is likely to be a rerun of past battles. "It's back to politics as usual," says John W. Bachmann, managing principal of Edward D. Jones & Co., a St. Louis-based brokerage firm.

Small-business owners who had been attracted to un-politician Powell aren't likely to be happy with the alternatives. "There hasn't been a lot of excitement about Senator Dole," says Toby Malichi, president of Malichi Diversified Ltd., an Indianapolis trade-development firm. "He's Big Business--and Big Business is going back to him. Small-business people are up in the air."

And some moderate Powell backers may feel more comfortable with Clinton than the right-leaning Republicans, who are seen as captives of Christian conservative activists. Albin F. Moschner, CEO of Zenith Electronics Corp., described himself as "a big supporter" of Powell who, while leaning toward Dole, is open to backing the President. Says Moschner: "[Clinton] shows leadership on trade issues and is pro-business."

Likewise, Alan G. Hassenfeld, CEO of toymaker Hasbro Inc., says he won't support Dole because "he's placating the far right." Hassenfeld isn't sure whom he will vote for but worries that Powell's decision will further polarize American politics. "Without a middle-of-the-roader like Powell, we're going to see Republicans going farther to the right and the Democrats staying fairly to the left of center," he says.

Powell, in his statement, highlighted some of the same concerns about the GOP's rightward drift. He vowed to "assist the party in broadening its appeal" by resisting extremists and by courting minority voters. In pursuing that mission, Powell will find himself aligned with CEOs who are nervous about the cultural-warfare rhetoric of Republicans such as Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson. For execs down in the dumps about Powell's retreat, that's at least some consolation.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE