GOP's Powell Would Be Key Endorsement for Obama

Will former Secretary of State Colin Powell break with the Republican Party and endorse Democrat Barack Obama for president?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. Conservatives have been afraid that members of the Republican Party will defect and support Barack Obama, the Democrat. The person they most fear switching sides used to be the most popular member of President Bush's cabinet, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He hasn't tipped his hand yet, but he has expressed respect for Senator Obama.

Here he is speaking with PBS's Tavis Smiley back in January.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tavis Smiley Show")

General COLIN POWELL (Former Secretary of State, United States): I think this is such an important even for America, for the American people. We can show to the rest of the world that's possible to have a Kenyan father, to be a black man, to have gone to school in Indonesia, come back, gotten your education in this great country, and now you can put yourself forward for national office.

SHAPIRO: NPR news analyst Juan Williams has been talking with people close to Powell about whether he might endorse Obama for president.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Well, how realistic is this scenario?

WILLIAMS: Well, there's some punch to it. You know, I think from General Powell's team, the perspective is that both parties - Barack Obama and Senator McCain - want his endorsement and are looking to him as someone with military experience, with the background necessary. What we've seen already is that Robert Novak, the Washington columnist, has written that he thinks that General Powell may be on his way to endorsing Barack Obama. But the Powell camp says that General Powell remains very close friends with John McCain. So I don't know that it's coming anytime soon.

But clearly, this is all in play, and it has great consequence. And, in fact, a marketing firm recently did a study of all vice presidential possibilities, and for both Republicans and Democrats, Americans picked Colin Powell as their number one choice.

SHAPIRO: What would be in it for Powell if he endorsed Obama? This would be a strong break with the Republican Party, it would seem.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. It would mean that a man who really had come up with Republican patrons was suddenly turning his back on the Republican Party. But remember that General Powell is trying to reinvent himself after having gone to the U.N. to support going to war with Iraq…

SHAPIRO: Right.

WILLIAMS: …and the idea that there were weapons of mass destruction, or at least biological weapons. So I think he's trying to rebuild his own image. And he had quite an unpleasant departure from the Bush administration, felt that he was pushed out. So, in some ways, he's got some feelings about what's going on with the party. He's never been popular with the hard right-wing, the evangelical wing of that party. By his own account, he describes himself as someone who's 55 percent Republican. But it still would be a break - as you put it, Ari - with the Republican Party.

Nonetheless, it would allow him to be seen as someone who is part of a new and different kind of vision for America, and he's looking for a candidate who he thinks would really signify a departure in terms of rebuilding America's image in the world and American attitude.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk for a minute about Senator McCain. It seems that he and Senator Obama are both fighting for independent voters. If Colin Powell were to endorse Obama, is there anything McCain could do that would blunt the impact of that?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it would be a real loss for Senator McCain, in large part because Senator Obama is an unknown. And so far, what we've seen of Senator McCain's general election campaign strategy is paint Senator Obama as someone who doesn't have much experience and lacks judgment and a willingness to self-sacrifice when it comes to the good of the country.

So if you have someone with the gravity, the military experience, the political background of Colin Powell, it would be a real plus to the Obama ticket. What John McCain has to rely on here is his own Republican contacts, his long association with General Powell, and the fact that he will make the case to General Powell that - and he has been making this case over the days now - that General Powell has to think about exactly what Barack Obama would mean with regard to the war in Iraq. You know that General Powell was in charge of Desert Storm I. He made some decisions there. General Powell is someone who's in touch with the strain on the military. And don't forget, John McCain is a military man.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Juan Williams. Thanks a lot, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Ari.

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