WASHINGTON – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Sunday that ideological conservatives and particularly radio commentator Rush Limbaugh have gained a hold over the Republican Party that risks driving the GOP into an extended exile from power.

Powell’s warnings about the shrinking appeal of the Republican Party were cast in unusually personal terms as Powell answered charges in recent weeks from two champions of the Republican right, Limbaugh and former Vice President Dick Cheney, that Powell is no longer a Republican.

“Rush will not get his wish, and Mr. Cheney was misinformed,” said Powell, a military adviser to President Ronald Reagan, Cabinet member for President George W. Bush and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush’s father. “I am still a Republican.”

Speaking on the CBS Sunday morning show, “Face the Nation,” Powell, a political moderate who repeatedly clashed with the former vice president while in George W. Bush’s administration, bristled at his critics’ charge that he had left the party, suggesting it revealed high-handedness on their part.

“Neither (Cheney) nor Rush Limbaugh are members of the membership committee of the Republican Party,” Powell said. “I get to make my decision on that.”

Powell’s public retort adds fuel to an often-acrimonious and ongoing conflict between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party that has left some centrists feeling alienated. After 28 years as a Republican senator, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter last month switched allegiances to the Democratic Party, citing GOP hostility to his vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package. Maine’s two moderate Republican senators also have expressed public misgivings about the atmosphere.

Powell reflected those feelings in the television interview, criticizing “dictates that come down from the right wing of the party.”

Cheney said on “Face the Nation” two weeks earlier that Powell had “left the party” when he endorsed Obama for president late last year. “I assumed that that is some indication of his loyalty,” Cheney said of Powell.

Limbaugh began the drumbeat earlier on his own radio show.

“What Colin Powell needs to do is close the loop and become a Democrat, instead of claiming to be a Republican interested in reforming the Republican Party. He’s not. He’s a full-fledged Democrat,” Limbaugh said in his May 6 show.

Powell targeted Limbaugh for the most severe criticism, accusing the radio host and his followers of using intimidation to stifle competing voices in a necessary debate within the Republican Party on its future direction after disastrous electoral losses. Limbaugh, he said, “shouldn’t have a veto over what someone thinks.”

He cited the experience of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who in March described Limbaugh as a mere “entertainer” with an “incendiary” radio show. Within 24 hours of a Limbaugh radio show attacking Steele for the comments, the party leader publicly apologized and hailed him as “a national conservative leader.”

Two Republican congressmen also in recent months have quickly reversed themselves and apologized to Limbaugh after making similar criticisms, Powell noted.

Powell, who like Steele used the word “entertainer” to describe Limbaugh, said, “If he’s out there, he should be subject to criticism.”

Powell urged the party to undergo a wide-ranging “after-action review” following losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections that demonstrate a “leakage (that) cannot continue if the Republican Party is going to play a major role in the life of our country.”

Powell, who once considered seeking the Republican presidential nomination and has been featured prominently as a surrogate over the years by GOP candidates seeking to broaden their appeal, cited polls showing plummeting numbers of people identify themselves as Republicans and its dwindling competitiveness in most regions of the country.

The party’s victories have become increasingly concentrated in the conservative South.

Republican performance in attracting voters outside the South in presidential elections since 1992 has reached its lowest level ever for five consecutive elections, the National Journal has noted. In the last election, only 42 percent of voters outside the South cast their ballots for Republican Sen. John McCain in the presidential election.

“The Republican Party has to take a hard look at itself and decide what kind of party are we,” Powell said today. “Are we simply moving farther to the right and by so doing simply opening up the right of center and the center to be taken over by independents and to be taken over by the Democrats?”

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