Before Robert J. Dole declared on national television Tuesday night that it was doubtful Colin Powell would become his running mate, he had begun moving left in a way intended to make it easier for the celebrated general to become the Republican vice presidential nominee. The carnage left in the wake of this shift has shattered the morale of the party, quite apart from whatever course Powell finally takes.

Prior to his 40-minute chat with Powell last Saturday, Dole declined to sign a fund-raising letter for the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), the state's anti-affirmative action ballot proposition, which he had earlier endorsed. Since the meeting, he has minimized his differences with Powell about racial preferences.

Most stunning has been Dole on abortion. In an interview with CNN's "Inside Politics" on Monday, he inexplicably shifted his posture in the direction of Powell and other pro-choice Republicans. By asserting that a declaration of toleration should be attached to the antiabortion plank rather than the preamble of the platform, Dole told the pro-life base of the party that its views have less credibility than other controversial statements in the party platform.

Dole's attempt to run for president by denying his ideological base is all the more remarkable if he is correct in saying Powell means what he says when he asserts he will not run for office. A Dole-Powell ticket, polls say, would instantly reduce President Clinton's big lead to a dead heat. But Dole seems to be preparing a Powell ticket without Powell.

The dismay on Wednesday among Republicans, including many of Dole's Senate colleagues, should not be underestimated. His farewell address Tuesday, though witty and entertaining, was a celebration of the liberal programs he had helped pass and a look backward into the 1970s rather than a vision forward into the 1990s.

But the worst was yet to come. Wednesday morning, politicians read the front page of the New York Times and learned that in a local Kansas City television interview Tuesday, the Republican presidential candidate had engaged in a patented diatribe against a critic. He attacked conservative activist Gary Bauer, a former Reagan White House policy aide who now heads the Family Research Council. That may yield Dole more trouble than he needs. Bauer is a close ally of Jim Dobson, whose "Focus on the Family" television program reaches 20 million devoted followers.

There are indeed some Washington insiders happy that Gary Bauer was getting his comeuppance. But Dole is only encouraging the people who believe Bill Clinton can be defeated without the help of the Christian Coalition.

This would make sense only if at the last minute Powell changed his mind and joined the ticket. With him or without, Dole is risking the alienation of his base and writing off the social issue for the 1996 campaign.

It has been obvious since his self-revelation as a Republican last year that Powell does not like the party much. He has declined to endorse candidates other than Sen. John Warner in Virginia, who is despised by religious conservatives.

The general broke his silence on political issues in a remarkable commencement speech May 25 at Maryland's predominantly black Bowie State University. Defending racial preferences, Powell called on graduates to "resist misguided government initiative seeking to shut it down."

Dole had said nothing about his own bill to end such preferences, and maintained that silence for the next three weeks after Powell's address. Then, in the same Monday interview in which he changed his abortion stand, he praised Powell's "fine speech" at Bowie State. "I've been for affirmative action" but want to change it, he said. How does that differ from Clinton's call to "mend, but not end" the system?

Like abortion, the racial preference issue offers an opportunity for Dole to challenge Clinton on a social issue where the president cannot co-opt him. In a rare case of public support for an unpopular position, Clinton is committed to affirmative action in politics and in the courts. Similarly, Dole may now find it more difficult to exploit Clinton's unpopular veto of the bill banning partial-birth abortion.

One Republican senator put it to me this way: "I love Bob Dole, I admire him. He is a great man. But he is a terrible candidate." Whether Dole is following Richard Nixon's instructions from the grave to turn left after he wins the nomination or just his own instincts, he committed a grievous political blunder as he ended his distinguished 30 years in the Senate. (C)1996, Creators Syndicate Inc.