WASHINGTON - A Republican congressman from Staten Island entreated the departing secretary of state, Colin Powell, yesterday to consider running for the Senate from New York in 2006.
Rep. Vito Fossella declined to disclose the secretary's response to their telephone conversation, and the State Department declined to comment.
The scenario sent a shiver of excitement through Republicans, who delighted at the thought, however fanciful, of a titanic clash between the venerated soldier-diplomat and the celebrated Senator Clinton.
"You could sell tickets to this one," Rep. Peter King, a Republican of Long Island, said.
Mr. King was quick to throw enthusiastic support behind his colleague's idea, saying of Mr. Powell, "He's a war hero, a world-class diplomat, born and raised in New York ... a guy who came from the streets of the Bronx to the corridors of power throughout the world."
Rep. James Walsh, an upstate Republican, deemed the idea "brilliant."
When he announced his resignation Monday, Mr. Powell said he looked forward to returning to private life and that he did not know what he'd do next.
In 1996 he turned down an opportunity to run for president, and in 2000 a "draft Powell" campaign did not persuade him to change his mind. Mr. Fossella is approaching his colleagues and considering organizing a similar "draft Powell for Senate" movement, the congressman's spokesman, Craig Donner, said.
Mr. Fossella couched his overture to the secretary as a respectful "call to duty," in which the 67-year-old globetrotting former general has an opportunity to put his talents and influence at the service of the state and city where he grew up.
Mr. Powell was born to Jamaican parents in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx. He attended public schools and graduated with a bachelor's degree in geology in 1958 from City College of New York, where he also participated in ROTC.
Mr. Fossella's pitch emphasized to the secretary that his credibility and respect would get him a seat at the highest tables, to the benefit of New Yorkers.
"As a native New Yorker, a proud son of Harlem, and first-generation American, you have a unique insight and great understanding of the challenges facing our State," Mr. Fossella wrote in a letter to Mr. Powell.
Others also saw benefit for Republicans in the idea.
Mr. Powell's star power would lift Republican tickets statewide and could help the party win countless local races that come below the U.S. Senate on the ballot, such as judges, county officials, and seats in the Assembly, Mr. King mused.
"It would get more people on the Republican line and give an energy and vitality to the Republican Party that we haven't seen in years," he said.
A Democratic political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, agreed that a Powell candidacy could boost the fortunes of Republicans, who trail the Democrats in party enrollment by more than 2 million voters statewide.
"The Republicans need something in New York," Mr. Sheinkopf said, calling them "a party in decline."
Senator Schumer, a Democrat, was reelected this month in a landslide.
While Mr. Powell's candidacy would get more Republicans to the polls, it could also have cross-party appeal. He served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administrations of both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, and Democrats hail him as a "moderate" voice in the current administration.
"Some Democrats would find him appealing in central New York and the Western Tier, but he would have to talk straight economic issues," Mr. Sheinkopf speculated.
Despite Mr. Powell's roots as the son of Jamaican immigrants, the odds of African-Americans' voting in large numbers for a Republican candidate were poor, he said, or more precisely, "as good as growing a second head."
The biggest problem the secretary would face is that he never has run for elected office, let alone in a grueling statewide campaign of handshaking and fund-raising.
Past political forays by distinguished senior Cabinet and military leaders offer cautionary tales.
The stellar resume of Arthur Goldberg - secretary of labor under President Kennedy, Supreme Court justice, ambassador to the United Nations under President Johnson - did not keep him from being pummeled at the polls when he tried to take on incumbent Governor Rockefeller in the 1970 election.
Experience as President Reagan's secretary of state and a former NATO commander did not help Alexander Haig in the 1988 Republican presidential primary.
Nor did General Wesley Clark's military credentials rescue him in the Democratic primary last spring.
But a Powell candidacy would not be unprecedented.
By reaching out to Mr. Powell, Mr. Fossella is taking a page out of the playbook of Rep. Charles Rangel, who encouraged the former first lady to run for the Senate, Mr. Sheinkopf noted.
The biggest question is whether Mr. Powell would have any desire to seek the job. He could make a lucrative living in the private sector - and enjoy his hobby of restoring old cars.
Mr. Powell's wife, Alma, was believed to have dissuaded him from seeking the presidency in 1996, in part due to racist threats the family had received.
"The operating theory ought to be that Mrs. Powell will make the decision," Mr. Sheinkopf said of the Senate trial balloon.