Colin Powell called on Republicans here tonight to "always be the party of inclusion," and urged the GOP to open its arms to diversity and rip out discrimination, "branch and root."

Powell's speech closing the first day of the Republican National Convention struck themes all but absent during the rest of the day-long, heavily scripted program. "You all know that I believe in a woman's right to choose and I strongly support affirmative action," he told delegates to a mixture of scattered applause and boos.

But for the most part, delegates appeared pleased with what Powell had to say, filling the aisles to get a better look at him, interrupting him with applause dozens of times. "This is the best articulation . . . of Republicanism that I've heard; one of the best speeches I've heard in a long time," said Briane M. House, an attorney from Greenfield, Ind.

They cheered as Powell told of his own history, as the child of immigrants whose parents had taught him to "stick with it, because in America, justice will eventually triumph and the powerful, searing words of promise of the founding fathers will come through."

Powell's address was his first major partisan speech, and was billed in advance as one of the signature moments of the four-day gathering. It seemed designed to give new life to the "big tent" philosophy that the late GOP chairman Lee Atwater prescribed for the party in 1989.

"A nation as great and diverse as America deserves leadership that opens its arms not only to those who have already reaped the rewards of the American dream," he said, "but to those who strive and struggle each day often against daunting odds to make that dream come true."

"The Republican Party must always be the party of inclusion," he continued. "The Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious to us as a Mayflower descendant. The descendant of a slave or of a struggling miner in Appalachia must be as welcome -- and find as much appeal -- in our party as any other American."

Powell borrowed the phrase he made famous during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when he explained the allied strategy to defeat the Iraqi force in Kuwait. "First we're going to cut it off and then we're going to kill it."

Tonight Powell said, "Let the party of Lincoln be in the forefront, leading the crusade, not only to cut off and kill discrimination, but to open every avenue of educational and economic opportunity to those who are still denied access because of their race, ethnic background or gender." Powell said he had been invited to share his views by party leaders because Republicans were "big enough people to disagree on individual issues and still work for our common goal: restoring the American dream."

And Powell answered the question he said he had been asked many times: "Why I became a Republican."

"I became a Republican because I believe our party best represents the principles of freedom, opportunity, and limited government upon which our nation was founded . . . because I believe the policies of our party will lead to greater economic growth . . . because I truly believe the federal government has become too large and too intrusive in our lives."

The speech was, in part, an upbeat recitation of common Republican themes -- strengthening families so they can fight crime and drugs; relying on the free-enterprise system as a catalyst to good jobs; cutting taxes, spending and nettlesome government regulations.

But, he said, the party must "never step back from compassion" and its goals must be accomplished "in a way that does not paint all of government as the enemy."

The Dole campaign and many Republicans across the country hope that Powell's message of inclusiveness will set the stage for Dole's fall comeback and signal to independents, minorities and women wary of Republican policies that they should give the GOP a fresh look.

Powell's remarks brought delegates to their feet at certain points with chants of: "Colin ! Colin!" The least enthusiastic applause appeared to be in response to his profession of belief in abortion rights. Among the loudest roars of the night came when he said the party was large enough to accommodate opposing viewpoints. And then again with his forceful embrace of the party's ticket -- Dole and Jack Kemp. His story and Dole's, Powell said, were tales "with common threads."

Coming on the heels of an emotional speech by Nancy Reagan, Powell punctuated his remarks with hand gestures, at times clenching his fists for emphasis. He departed from the prepared text once, exhorting the need to reform the welfare system because there is "a better way" to help families than with exhaustive government programs.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, he left the Bronx and rose through the military to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell has been a reluctant player in Republican Party politics, even though he served two Republican administrations.

After spurning numerous appeals to run for president and then to be considered as Dole's running mate, Powell agreed to a convention speaking role. But in between, he has rankled some in the party by tweaking Dole for snubbing the NAACP at its recent convention and delivering a much-talked about speech at Bowie State University in support of affirmative action.

Though Powell and Dole are not particularly close, the general gave a warm tribute to their shared struggles of war and humble roots. "I know this man," he said. "In an era of too much salesmanship and too much smooth talking, Bob Dole is a plain-spoken man. A man of strength, maturity and integrity."

But he seemed to be offering advice to his party's political candidates and operatives when he urged that they campaign with respect for the voters "intelligence and fair mindedness."

"Let us debate our differences with the Democrats strongly," he said, "but with the civility and absence of acrimony that the American people long for in our political debate."

Powell's advisers insisted that he wrote tonight's speech himself, beginning the drafting process a month ago at the kitchen table of his home in McLean, Va., with only what one described as "wordsmithing help." He rehearsed for two-and-a-half hours Sunday and again for an hour this morning, spokesman Bill Smullen said.

Others invited to address the convention were given such strict guidelines by party officials that some -- including Govs. Pete Wilson of California and William Weld of Massachusetts -- decided to forgo the opportunity.

Rarely has there been such broad anticipation of a convention speech -- both inside the hall and outside it. The buzz began building at the delegation parties and fund-raisers Sunday night, and by Monday the excitement and speculation surrounding the general's remarks had intensified.

For Larry Haygood, a black man and president emeritus of Southern Community College in Tuskegee, Ala., Powell's prime time appearance had special meaning.

"He is an example of someone who has really fulfilled the American dream," said Haygood, an Alabama delegate. " . . . He's following in the tradition of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Once you have achieved the American dream, whether it's cast upon you or not, you are representing the race."

After Powell had left the floor, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was ebullient. "Before I heard his speech, I thought he was the most inspirational leader in America. And I heard nothing tonight to change my mind.

"He absolutely mesmerized the delegates and I suspect the television audience as well. It demonstrates to the public that Bill Clinton calling the Republicans extremist doesn't necessarily make it so," McConnell said.

Carolyn Castleberry, a South Carolina delegate wearing a Strom Thurmond button, said: "I'm impressed with him because he doesn't live in the past." Though she doesn't share his views about abortion, she added: "He seems to feel the way we do about welfare. He sounded very conservative. I had had some doubts about how conservative he was." CAPTION: Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell waves at onlookers from the floor of the San Diego Convention Center.(Photo ran in an earlier edition) CAPTION: Lonnie Frank cheers the Republican convention speech of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, shown on screen set up in Gaslight district of downtown San Diego. CAPTION: Delegates Basil Battaglia and Adele Rugg of Hawaii get acquainted on the GOP convention floor. (Photo ran in an earlier edition) CAPTION: Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell told GOP delegates of his own history as the child of immigrants whose parents had taught him to "stick with it."