Powell Backs Obama, Blasts GOP

Colin Powell, a Republican and retired general who was President Bush's first secretary of state, broke with the party Sunday and endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president. Powell called Obama a "transformational figure" while criticizing the tone of John McCain's campaign.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now to that much talked about endorsement by Colin Powell. Here's what the general said yesterday when he broke with his party and gave his support to the Democratic candidate.

General COLIN POWELL (Secretary of State): I have watched an individual who has intellectual vigor and who dives deeply into issues and approaches issues with a very, very steady hand. And so I'm confident that he will be ready to take on these challenges on January 21st.

MONTAGNE: Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday morning. Joining us now as she does every Monday is NPR news analyst, Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What does General Powell's endorsement mean to Barack Obama from your point of view? And also, to John McCain who didn't get it?

ROBERTS: Well, I will quote Newt Gingrich here, the former House Speaker Republican Strategist who said on ABC, that this puts an end to the experience argument. That it shores up Barack Obama with the Independent voters and those are the voters, Renee who we've still seen in the polls are movable. That they haven't completely settled on one candidate or another. So that having them come more securely to the Obama camp is huge. He is also using it. Obama is using the endorsement to counter the Republican accusations of socialism.

He says if I have the endorsements of Colin Powell and Warren Buffett, the financier, how could I possibly be a socialist? I think Powell also shored up some of the other Democratic arguments that you have been hearing in recent days which is that the McCain campaign has been too negative especially by its use of William Ayers association with Barack Obama. Powell underlined that he thought that that was the case that it was too negative. He said that McCain was his friend, he said that over and over but he said that, you know, he thought that the Republican Party had gone far too far to the right and that Sarah Palin is not ready to be president and Joe Biden is.

You know, Powell has complained about the Republican Party privately for a good while, but it hasn't been something he's made a public statement about. So, this is significant. The only measure we have of it is a Fox news poll that came out in August which by two-to-one voter said they would be more likely to vote for Obama if Powell endorsed them.

MONTAGNE: And Cokie, what do you make of the latest polling data?

ROBERTS: Well, I think it's probably right where it's been. I mean, every so often, you see it tightening and tightening in some states. Today the gallop tracking poll of registered voters has Obama up by 10 points, 52 to 42 but you know, as we get closer to Election Day, it is likely to tighten as voters settle. But everything is going in Barack Obama's direction. All that money, that Powell endorsement, enormous crowds in red states, 100,000 people in Missouri showing up for him and newspaper endorsements including 25 newspapers that had endorsed George Bush have now endorsed Barack Obama.

MONTAGNE: Given then all of what you've just said with two weeks to go, how does that affect the strategies of each campaign?

ROBERTS: Well in the case of the Obama campaign, I think they just keep on keeping on. It's been the most disciplined campaign I've ever seen in my life particularly most disciplined Democratic campaign. And I think he just campaigns everywhere as you just heard in Peter's piece, he's trying to stretch the map. So, he will be in Florida today for instance, trying to compete there. John McCain will be in Missouri, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire trying to, you know, hold on to those states or grab Pennsylvania.

Their families are everywhere and their running mates are going to be everywhere including Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live last Saturday giving that program the highest rating in 14 years. And the themes are tried and true. The Republicans are saying, Obama's going to raise taxes and spread the wealth, the Democrats are warning that John McCain is going to hurt your social security and Medicare, not anything we haven't heard before.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. Analysis from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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Powell Endorses Obama, Criticizes GOP's Tone

Colin Powell i i

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks to Tom Brokaw during a taping of Meet the Press Sunday in Washington. Powell spoke about endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press
Colin Powell

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks to Tom Brokaw during a taping of Meet the Press Sunday in Washington. Powell spoke about endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, saying the Illinois senator would be "a transformational figure" and represent "a generational change" at a critical time for the nation and the world.

Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Powell said his choice did not reflect any lack of respect or admiration for his longtime friend, John McCain, the Republican nominee.

"As gifted as (McCain) is, he is essentially going to execute the Republican agenda, the orthodoxy of the Republican agenda, with a new face and a maverick approach to it," Powell said.

The endorsement will help Obama deal with charges that he lacks the experience and preparation to lead on national security issues.

Powell's popularity has transcended party and racial lines since he emerged as a hero of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He remained in that job through the first eight months of Bill Clinton's first term as president.

Indeed, Obama began making reference to the endorsement at his first appearance of the day, an outdoor rally in Fayetteville, N.C. He said he was "beyond honored and deeply humbled" at the endorsement by Powell, whom he called "a great soldier, a great statesman and a great American [who] has endorsed our campaign to change America."

And, Obama added, "He knows, as we do, that this is a moment where we all need to come together as one nation — young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat."

By making his vote public, Powell also denies McCain an endorsement the Republicans might have used to change the momentum of the contest, adding instead to the sense that Obama has the upper hand.

There had been rumors that Powell was sympathetic to the Obama candidacy, in part because Powell was the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Obama would be the first black president. Powell said if that had been his motivation, he would have endorsed months earlier.

The retired general is also a Republican whose name was once touted as a possible presidential candidate. He has also been a longtime adviser to McCain, whom he has known for three decades. Powell reportedly had told friends this summer that he would not endorse either candidate because of those loyalties.

But Sunday morning, Powell told NBC's Tom Brokaw that he was uncomfortable with the direction the GOP had taken in recent years and with the tone of the campaign McCain had run this fall. He said McCain was "a different kind of Republican," but that it was not enough.

He also objected to the negative tone of much in the McCain campaign, as well as the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president and some of McCain's maneuvers responding to the economic crisis.

"Almost every day," Powell said of McCain, "there was a different approach to the problem, and that concerned me, sensing that he doesn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had."

By contrast, Powell said his comfort level with the Democratic nominee had increased. He said Obama, as a senator, candidate and nominee, had shown the necessary depth of judgment to be president, as well as "a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems" that would serve him well in the White House.

McCain responded that he and his friend had "a respectful disagreement" about the endorsement and the issues at stake Nov. 4.

"I've always admired and respected Gen. Powell," he said. "We're longtime friends. This doesn't come as a surprise. But I'm also very pleased to have the endorsement of four former secretaries of state — Kissinger, Baker, Eagleburger and Haig — and I'm proud to have the endorsement of well over 200 retired army generals and admirals. I respect and continue to respect and admire Secretary Powell."

McCain was referring to two secretaries of state under President George H.W. Bush — James A. Baker III and Lawrence Eagleburger; to Alexander Haig, who served under President Reagan; and to Henry Kissinger, who served Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Powell said he would cast his own vote for Obama but did not have plans to campaign for him. That may change in the days ahead, as the two spoke for about 10 minutes after the endorsement Sunday.

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