Everywhere he goes, Colin Powell is besieged. Bicycle messengers in spandex tights stop him on the streets of Washington and urge him to run for President. Waiters at restaurants advise the retired general to aim for the White House. CEOs quietly pledge money should Powell decide to run. Political operatives of both parties would like to ignore Powell -- but can't.

'I don't think about it a lot,' claims a senior White House official, before admitting, 'If Powell does run, he will be a significant player.' Another in the White House is more fatalistic: 'If he runs, we " re dead.' Says William Lacy, Bob Dole's top strategist: 'If he jumped in the race today, he would be the principal competitor for us.' Everywhere he goes, Colin Powell is applauded. In the hall in San Diego where the Republican Party will nominate its presidential candidate about a year from now, the crowd is instantly on its feet as his presence is announced and he bounds down to the podium. He speaks for 50 minutes, without notes, taking the crowd through the cold war, through Korea, Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Operation Desert Storm and the occupation of Haiti. Powell, 58, tells moving tales of his upbringing in Harlem and the South Bronx, of sitting in the Hall of St. Catherine in the Kremlin, where he heard Gorbachev declare that the cold war was over.

And when Powell has delivered his set speech, the inevitable question rises from the floor: 'When are you going to announce that you " re running for President?' The rapt audience carefully weighs the well-rehearsed answer, word by word. 'Thank you very, very much. And I'm very, very flattered. I'm honored and humbled.

It's a question I receive regularly, and I don't know what I'm going to do with my life after my book is finished. The book is out this fall, and then I'll have to make some choices. 'I tell people that I'm not a professional politician. I was truly a soldier.' Another wave of applause washes over him. 'Even after working two years in the West Wing, there isn't a single one of my White House friends from those days who could tell you today whether they think I'm a Republican or a Democrat. That was part of the code I lived with.

Now I'm no longer protected by my uniform. As I go around the country, I'm trying to develop a political philosophy, just to be a good citizen, not necessarily to run for office. 'I want to keep the option of elective office open because I think I should do that. Why close off possibilities? I want to be of some service to the nation in the future.

I just don't know if it will be an appointed office, charitable work, educational work... 'I don't find a passion for politics. I don't find that I have that calling for politics. But I want to keep the option open... So the only thing I could say in answer to your question is, 'I don't know if I'll ever announce. Just watch this space.

I'll be around somewhere in public life.' ' Clinton, Dole and millions of American voters are watching the Colin Powell space. More than half the country says it wants an independent candidate for President to break up the duopoly enjoyed by the two parties. And in a TIME/CNN poll, nearly a third of the voters say they would vote for Powell in a three-way race against Clinton and Dole, putting the retired general in a virtual dead heat with the candidates of the two major parties. Moreover, the poll shows that if Powell were the Republican nominee, he would edge Clinton by a few percentage points. In the Republican field, Powell is preferred by 22 percent of G. O.

P. -leaning voters, second to Dole's 43 percent and well ahead of Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm, each of whom attract only 6 percent. If Powell were Dole's vice-presidential choice, their ticket would beat Clinton and Al Gore, while a face-off between just Clinton and Dole shows Clinton ahead. There are four reasons why Powell could emerge as a major figure in the 1996 race: Powell himself, by disposition, inclination and personal history, is perhaps the ideal candidate to seize the large ideological center of American politics. Public discontent with the two-party system has been growing over the decades, and the voters who refuse to label themselves Republicans or Democrats outnumber either party's loyalists. The 1996 contest is quickly shaping up as a race between a wounded Democratic incumbent and a Republican who is a two-time presidential loser of advancing years and whose record is scrambling to get in synch with the right-wing fervor of his party.

Unhappiness with these options could yield a search for a new candidate. Perhaps most important, Powell, while he has not decided whether to run, is methodically positioning himself to make his own run for the office either as a Republican or independent, or to be the vice-presidential nominee on the Republican ticket. No man in modern American political history has ever had a better chance to become President of the U. S. on his own terms, and thus to redefine the public debate in a profound and lasting way.

At the same time, no man with such an advantage has seemed less driven to seize the opportunity. This reluctance, in the jujitsu of American politics, is a huge plus for the time being. As the campaign heats up, it will start to become a big negative. A dithering Powell would become the Hamlet of the 1996 race, a kind of Mario Cuomo with medals. It's not nice to fool with the political affections of the American people. Powell will soon have to say yes or no.

Even if he runs as an independent, which would allow him to skip the primary races early next year, he cannot stay on the sidelines much longer and still build the kind of war chest and organization necessary for this campaign. There is nothing easy about becoming President. Powell's appeal makes it less daunting. What exactly lies at its root? Why does nearly everyone who has worked with him sing his praises? Why is his reputation in the cynical, self-aggrandizing world of Washington nearly without blemish? 'I'm sure he has faults,' says Charles Duncan, a former Secretary of Energy, who worked with Powell in the Carter Administration, 'but I couldn't point to one.' Some associates have seen Powell as thin-skinned in the past, but they say he monitors his flaws carefully and is quickly 'self-correcting.' Military figures often carry an intrinsic appeal as tough, decisive leaders, and Powell starts with that quality. He advanced rapidly inside the Army, was the youngest Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and got huge credit for his organization of Desert Storm. But his appeal overflows the confines of the armed services.

On a photo of Powell and Ronald Reagan going over a document together, Reagan wrote, 'If you say so, I know it's all right.' At a press conference following the mission to Haiti, Powell stole the show from former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Sam Nunn and President Clinton. His performance in public is superb. Gerald Ford, who even as President never had such bearing, calls Powell 'the best public speaker in America.' In many recent speeches, Powell has taken his audience with him into Buckingham Palace as he received his honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in a way that makes him seem like a regular guy but also reminds people of how much he has accomplished. In San Diego in early June, he had the audience laughing at the little indignities he suffers now that the full power and glory of being Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is no longer his. He tells them he can't get his wife Alma to make him lunch and says, 'One of the saddest figures in all Christendom is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once removed, driving around with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes, making his strategic choice as to whether it's going to be McDonald's or Taco Bell.' 'He has that rapport good politicians have with people,' says Paul Wolfowitz, former Under Secretary of Defense.

'A lot of them go through the motions very well and convince people that they care. Then there are the gifted ones who are really connecting. He does that, and I think it's related to the fact that there are things he cares deeply about. There is an intensely human quality about Powell that I think is exceptional.' The personal story of Colin Powell is exemplary. Born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, he grew up in a solid and supportive family, worked hard to move up (although not so hard in college, getting only average grades) and succeeded mostly despite his race but sometimes because of it.

The Powell success story is reassuring to those Americans who want to believe that although racism persists, the system is not so corrupted by it as to prevent talented minorities from succeeding. Powell plays to that emotion in his speeches, talking unselfconsciously about race. 'How did I deal with racism?' he asked rhetorically at a speech in San Antonio, Texas. 'I beat it.

I said, 'I am not going to carry this burden of racism. I'm going to destroy your stereotype. I'm proud to be black. You carry this burden of racism, because I'm not going to.' ' He seems to be aware of the peculiar advantages of his race. In 1972, when he was plucked from a successful but still obscure career to become a White House Fellow, he remarked with knowing irony to a friend, 'I was lucky to be born black.' His race also gives Powell license to recognize and even joke about the ethnic differences in America in the face of both tiresome political correctness and simmering racial hatred. In his San Diego speech he parodied a pompous white military officer speaking in empty and orotund phrases.

Then he mimicked a black sergeant talking about the coming war in the Persian Gulf: 'We gonna kick butt and go home.' Describing an encounter with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at his White House treaty signing with Yasser Arafat, Powell put on a New York Jewish accent. And he even worked around the edges of gay sensibilities. 'Arafat... is so taken with the moment that he starts to pull me toward him and hug me and give me a two-cheek kiss. But I can only stand so much new world order... .' The audience laughed with him.

Powell's views on specific political issues are not fully articulated, and most Americans see him largely in policy-neutral terms. Thus he is something of an empty ideological vessel into which voters pour their own beliefs. But in the scores of speeches he has given since his retirement as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the message he has crafted is a brilliantly balanced mix of conservative values and a somewhat liberal view of the proper role of government. His most powerful theme has been the importance of family, of America as a big national family, and of reconciliation among warring forces abroad and hostile groups at home. He repeatedly tells the story of a young African-American soldier being interviewed just before going into battle in Kuwait. The soldier was asked whether he was afraid.

'He said,' Powell relates proudly, ''I am not afraid. And the reason I'm not afraid is that I'm with my family.' He looked over his shoulder at the other youngsters in his unit. They were white and black and yellow and every color of the American mosaic. 'That's my family. We take care of one another.' ' Powell leads toward his larger point: 'If we can build a spirit of family into the heart of an 18-year-old black private, send him 8, 000 miles away from home, join hundreds of similar teams and have them believe that, can there be any question in your mind or in your heart that we have the capacity as a nation to instill that same sense of family, and all it entails, in every workplace, in every community, in every school, in every home back here in America?' He draws the contrast between his message and that of other politicians. 'There's a lot of shouting and screaming going on in our political system.

But we have to keep our lives on certain fundamental principles, and one of those is that America is a family... We " ve got to start remembering that no member of our family should be satisfied if any member of our American family is suffering or in need and we can do something about it. 'We " ve got to teach our youngsters what a family means, what giving to your community means, what raising good children means. We " ve got to restore a sense of shame to our society. Nothing seems to shame us or outrage us anymore. We look at our television sets and see all kinds of trash, and we allow it to come into our homes.

We " re not ashamed of it anymore.' But just how, either as candidate or President, he would bring about such results he doesn't say. Powell carries a basic set of old-fashioned, conservative social values -- he is against sending women into combat, and fought against letting gays serve openly in the military. But he is adding specific and fairly centrist views on other hot-button issues. He is basically pro-choice, against the proposed flag-burning amendment and a supporter of Medicare, which helped him care for both his parents in their final years.

On affirmative action he makes a nuanced distinction. While he is against programs that give advantages to people who no longer need them, he supports programs that recognize that 'racism has been unfortunately an ingrained part of our society for a couple of hundred years.' Unlike politicians with long and detailed records, Powell has not had to vote yes or no, not had to enunciate positions in sufficient detail to stand up to real scrutiny and tough debate. He thus runs the risk of seeming naive and unknowing when the public debate sharpens. Yet the details of his positions may be less decisive than the overall presence he projects. Says Democratic pollster Peter Hart: 'Voting for a legislator, we say, 'I've got problems with him on this or that issue.' But voting for a President, we say, 'What kind of a leader will this person be? Do I trust this person? Does he have the toughness to govern?' ' In other words, does he have the force of will to propel himself into the main arena of national politics and the steeliness to be a good President? Even though Powell spent his life as a warrior, he never looked for fights. His success was as a bureaucrat, and a very careful one at that.

'Powell is not an innovator,' says a four-star general who served with him. 'He is a wonderful man, but he is a solid, dependable, reliable tinkerer at the margins.' Many critics cite Powell's reluctance to go to war against Iraq and his agreement to end the war before Saddam Hussein and his army were wiped out. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell had the chance to fundamentally reshape the armed forces for its post -- cold war role. Instead he produced a timid and unimaginative plan that trimmed but did not reform the military. Yet he is a skillful facilitator and is seen as 'an honest broker who can get things done.' This does not make him a general in the mold of Eisenhower. But even the four-star general who calls Powell a tinkerer concludes that 'I would vote for him if he runs.' But before voters can pass judgment on those issues, the immediate question is, How can Powell enter the presidential race? The current dynamic of two-party politics in America has forced candidates for both the Republican and the Democratic nominations to play heavily to their core constituencies, which are, respectively, more conservative and more liberal than the electorate at large.

These are the activists who vote most reliably in the primaries. Bob Dole, for example, veers increasingly rightward to bolster his support among the Christian right. Bill Clinton, despite his recent decision to back a balanced budget, has worked hard to please left ish groups like labor, the National Organization for Women and environmentalists to make sure he would not be challenged from the left for the nomination. But the tension between attempting to be a general-election centrist and a primary-campaigning liberal has added to Clinton's image as chronic waffler. A similar tension will also make Dole try to retreat from his recent rightward tilt if he is nominated and has to campaign against Clinton. The pull of the more activist wings of each party has left both parties incapable of finding and holding the political center.

At one point George Bush had a 91 percent approval rating, but he still lost the presidency. Bill Clinton became President without a majority in 1992, and then his party suffered historic losses in the 1994 elections. The Republicans in Congress, only 7 and a half months after their landslide victory, are now supported by only 34 percent of the public on their handling of budget issues in the TIME/CNN poll. Observes Powell: 'The American people are channel surfing.

And you " re going to channel surf in '96, '98, 2000, until you find something you like.' While political experts have been predicting a profound political realignment to replace the New Deal consensus that lasted two generations, what exists today is closer to a de alignment, with shifting allegiances and only loose party identification. It is in that context that a Powell candidacy could be most powerful. Many of the centrist Democrats who backed Clinton in 1992, and whose ideas and policies let him escape the lethal tag of 'liberal' in that campaign, are disappointed with Clinton's failure to lead in that direction. The President, however, is not likely to be challenged from within his own party, leaving some centrists hoping for another candidate. Meanwhile, many Republicans can't stomach the extent to which the agenda of the Christian right has become the agenda of the Republican Party. Thus some of Powell's friends and supporters argue that he should run as a Republican.

Although the best G. O. P. operatives have already signed on with other candidates who have raised tens of millions of dollars, Dole has not caught fire, and many Republicans who back him publicly are 'for Dole for now,' in the words of one Powell booster.

New Hampshire permits independents -- more than 30 percent of the electorate -- to vote in the G. O. P. primary, and Powell could draw enough of them to upset calculations of victory based on likely Republican voters. Other states, including Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, have primaries where non-Republicans can vote, and to Powell backers, his strong showing in those states will convince party faithful that he in some ways is just like Ike: not conservative enough for their tastes but powerful enough to beat Bill Clinton. This scenario has two weaknesses.

First, most Republicans think they can beat Bill Clinton without Colin Powell and could turn on Powell like a virus. Second, to give up his happily settled life to contest the G. O. P. nomination, Powell will have to see Dole's juggernaut falter -- and falter by autumn if Powell is to have enough time to organize. At the least, Powell enthusiasts say, the general could easily come second in a bunch of primaries and assemble enough delegates to be a bargaining force at the convention.

But that would probably get him the vice-presidential nomination, and he may well get that without doing anything. The Dole campaign has discussed the vice presidency with Powell's friends. A Dole-Powell ticket could be bad news for Bill Clinton, because of the general's popularity and because Powell would probably attract significant numbers of black votes in crucial states where Clinton will need to win. Powell would be the perfect vice-presidential candidate for any Republican nominee. The trouble is that he would be only that: Vice President. And Powell himself has doubts about taking that job.

Perhaps the more plausible route to a Powell presidency would be through an independent candidacy, running right in the middle of the American ideological spectrum, without the taint of party politics, as a military leader with his own ideas and with a government of national reconciliation composed of talented people from both parties. This course obviously has some allure for Powell and his friends. He dismisses much of the Democratic Party's politics as brain dead and thinks the Republican right is too extreme on many social issues. The experience of Ross Perot in 1992 is not lost on them either. That so flawed a candidate as Perot could get on the ballot in 50 states and gather 19 percent of the national vote, having quit the race once when he was nearly tied with Bush and Clinton, is seen as proof that an independent race is not just a fantasy.

But not easy either. Perot spent more than $60 million of his own money on his race for the presidency. He had tens of thousands of volunteers collecting more than 1. 5 million signatures across the land. Powell's friends assert blandly that 'money would be no problem.' One former Pentagon official who now works in corporate America boasts, 'I could raise $50 million in one month just from the CEOs I know.' Says another supporter: 'There'd be stories about people sending in nickels, dimes and quarters just to help out, but you " ll get all the big money you want to get.' If Powell ran as a genuine independent, he would not receive federal campaign funds and would thus have to raise tens of millions of dollars to compete evenly with the major-party nominees. Building an organization would be even harder than raising the money.

Yet the Perot experience is an instruction manual. Perot said he'd run if drafted, which kicked off a huge volunteer effort that he did not join until later. Despite a recent decision not to create a formal political party, Perot's United We Stand America is still very active. Other Perot alumni have split off who would find a Powell candidacy appealing and would lend expertise and manpower. And the experience of less impressive independent candidates suggests that ballot access is not an insurmountable problem. George Wallace in 1968 and John Anderson in 1980 bolted from their parties late in the game and managed to be on every state's ballot.

Lenora Fulani did the same in 1988, running on the utterly obscure New Alliance ticket. There are already several 'Draft Powell' organizations in the field, operating without his blessing or his opposition. But their level of intensity does not put one in mind of Desert Storm. There are two committees registered with the Federal Election Commission, one based in California and one in suburban Washington. Andrew Di Marco, a California lawyer, calls his outfit the Draft Committee for Colin Powell's Army. So far he's collected 13, 400 signatures urging Powell to run, but his drive is going into low gear until Powell gives some clearer sign of his intentions.

The other committee is the Exploratory Draft Colin Powell for President Committee, led by a group of black Republicans. They have sent a letter to Powell urging him to run, appointed regional and state coordinators and printed bumper stickers and buttons, and they vow to collect 20, 000 signatures per state by the end of the summer. Both these groups are predominantly Republican, as is a third organization run by Charles Kelly, a retired Washington banker and former minor official in the Eisenhower Administration. His main effort is to talk to business friends about giving money to a Powell campaign, to preach the Powell gospel to influential Republicans and to organize a shadow national committee. None of this is big league enough to represent a real political force, but that's not surprising given that they have no real candidate to support -- yet. Powell is treating the presidential option with the same methodical attention he has given most endeavors.

He is thinking long and hard about his options and about the likely consequences of his actions, meeting with a pair of close friends, former Reagan White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage. They had their last skull session on May 24, when Powell provided a tasty take-out lunch from Chicken-Out, a step up from the greasy grocery-chain fare he had served at their previous meeting. With each public outing on the lecture circuit, he fills in more blanks in his agenda of political positions. And while his book, to be published in September and for which he reportedly received a $6 million advance, was originally planned to end with his retirement as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he has added a new last chapter about his views on the major issues of the day. He is also preparing for his book tour, which will begin in mid-September and will take him to 20 cities across the nation.

The first event in that launch will be a television interview with Barbara Walters. For that appearance, Powell went to Jamaica to get some TV footage of the land his parents left to come to America. When the book tour and its attendant publicity are over in late October, Powell will no longer be a blank political slate. And at that moment, he will read the polls again to see whether the fuller picture of Colin Powell has diminished or enhanced his political attractiveness.

Will he then roll the dice? He is certainly not saying now. Neither is anyone close to him. Powell and his friends agree that one important vote will come from Alma, the general's wife of 32 years. What is her verdict? 'Alma's not opining,' says a Powell friend.

'But her name isn't Sherman.' If elected, she will serve. And Powell himself? His reluctance is deep and his indecision is real. He is flattered by the attention and not unaware of the role a black candidate -- and a black President -- could play in America. But he does not feel compelled to run either as a role model for African Americans or to demonstrate to whites that blacks can make good leaders. The core of the problem for Colin Powell is that no matter which course his candidacy would take, either as a Republican -- challenging the party's titular leaders and current front runner -- or as an independent, the very act of his running would disrupt the settled pattern of American politics.

Intellectually, Powell can argue both the positive and negative aspects of such disruption. A black President could become a major healer of the racial divisions that plague this country. A true centrist could form a governing coalition that could bring stability and end the 'channel surfing' that has marked recent elections. A strong leader elected largely on his own terms, without obligations to interest groups, could define a new course for America, at home and abroad, for the next generation. On the other hand, a Powell candidacy could finish off the staggering Democratic Party. As either a Republican nominee or an independent candidate, he would attract a substantial number of black votes taking away the most reliable core of the party's electoral support and vacuuming up votes Clinton needs if he is to win in 1996.

And how could a non party President actually govern? It is likely both parties in Congress would be plenty angry with President Powell for having broken up their games. Would there be a proliferation of parties, turning American democracy into a version of Italy's fractured, shifting coalition style? Friends counter that Powell could form a bipartisan government of national reconciliation. But he has known many Third World coup leaders who say they have taken power to achieve national reconciliation. Powell, by his own admission, has always been a supremely cautious calculator of risks and rewards. He succeeded as a political general by knowing where the boundaries were, knowing what was possible and what was not. There is nothing in the life of Colin Powell to suggest he would be the man to toss a grenade into the entrenched positions of American politics.

On the other hand, Powell has bounded up the career ladder two and three steps at a time. He is a very determined man. Meanwhile, he is thinking, calculating, weighing his choices. And he's talking to Alma.