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POWELL SAID TO GIVE FRANK OPINION ON BOLTON'S SUITABILITY

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is emerging as a behind-the-scenes player in the battle over John R. Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, privately telling at least two key Republican lawmakers that Bolton is a smart but very problematic government official, according to Republican sources.

Powell spoke in recent days with Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., two of three GOP senators on the Foreign Relations Committee who have raised concerns about Bolton's confirmation, the sources said. Powell did not advise the senators to oppose Bolton, but offered a frank assessment of the nominee as a man who was challenging to work with on personnel and policy matters, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

"General Powell has returned calls from senators who wanted to discuss specific questions that have been raised," said Margaret Cifrino, a Powell spokeswoman. "He has not reached out to senators," and considers the discussions private.

A Chafee spokesman confirmed that at least two conversations took place. Bolton served under Powell as his undersecretary of state for arms control, and the two were known to have serious clashes.

Powell's tenure as secretary of state was often marked by friction with the White House on a range of foreign policy issues, disagreements that both sides worked to keep from surfacing. It is not Powell's style to weigh in strongly against a former colleague, but rather direct people to what he sees as flaws and potential problems, they say. Powell's views are highly influential with many Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Those who know Powell best said two recent events provide insight into his thinking. Powell did not sign a letter from seven other former U.S. secretaries of state and defense supporting Bolton, and his former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, recently told the New York Times that Bolton would be an "abysmal ambassador."

With a final committee vote delayed until next month, Chafee is studying Bolton's record and withholding judgment, his spokesman said. Chafee told reporters Wednesday he is "much less likely" to support Bolton because of questions about his credibility.

President Bush Thursday accused Democrats of blocking Bolton's nomination for political reasons, as the White House intensified its campaign to confirm Bolton and discredit critics.

"John's distinguished career and service to our nation demonstrates that he is the right man at the right time for this important assignment," Bush said.