With Election Polarized by Race, a Romney Adviser Sparks Controversy

PHOTO: Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu speaks to reporters in the spin room on behalf of Mitt Romney after the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 Hempstead, N.Y.
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Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, sparked controversy Thursday night by making incendiary comments about President Obama's race.

During an interview on CNN, Sununu suggested that Colin Powell endorsed Obama solely because they both are black. Sununu, who served in the George H.W. Bush administration together with Powell, questioned whether the retired four-star general was making an endorsement based on issues or a "different reason."

When asked to elaborate, Sununu said, "When you have someone of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him."

Powell, who endorsed Obama over John McCain in 2008, cited the president's plans on the economy, healthcare and education in backing him again. He also expressed doubts about Republican nominee Mitt Romney's foreign policy positions.

Later Thursday night, Sununu tried to back away from his statement.

"Colin Powell is a friend and I respect the endorsement decision he made and I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the president's policies," he said in a statement.

But Sununu has a history of making statements that have fanned racial flames. In July, he said he wished Obama would "learn how to be an American."

That statement played into the false claims that Obama was born outside the U.S. Sununu later explained that he meant to say that the president doesn't understand American business. In an interview with Fox News the same day, he railed against Obama's drug use as a teen.

Sununu's comments come at a time when polls show the U.S. electorate is more polarized than it has been in 24 years, when his former boss – George H.W. Bush – won the White House.

Obama trails Romney 23 percentage points (60-37 percent) among white voters, according to an ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll released Thursday. Romney carried over his 60 percent support into Friday's poll. Meanwhile, Obama receives the support of 82 percent of nonwhite voters, with "near universal support" from black voters.

While Obama's weak support among white voters could hurt him in this election, the Republican Party's struggles in attracting racial and ethnic minorities could help Obama offset his paltry white support, and doom the GOP in future contests.

Update:

President Obama responded to Sununu's comments Friday during an interview with radio host Michael Smerconish.

"I don't think that there are many people in America who would question Gen, Powell's credibility, his patriotism, his willingness to tell it straight," he said, according to the Washington Post. "So any suggestion that Gen. Powell would make such a profound statement in such an important election based on anything other than what he thought would be best for America doesn't make much sense."

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