Obama 'Beyond Humbled' as GOP's Powell Says He'd Be 'an Exceptional President'

Republican who served as Bush secretary of state says he will vote for Obama.

Oct. 19, 2008 — -- Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama wasted no time basking in the glow of his latest big-name supporter, former Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican.

"Today, I am beyond honored and deeply humbled to have the support of Gen. Colin Powell," Obama told a crowd of 10,000 in Fayetteville, N.C.

"Gen. Powell has defended this nation bravely, and he has embodied our highest ideals through his long and distinguished public service," Obama said in a town that sits in the shadow of Fort Bragg, home to the 82nd Airborne.

Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reacted to the Powell endorsement, calling Powell "a longtime friend."

"This doesn't come as a surprise," McCain said. "But I'm also very pleased to have the endorsement of four former secretaries of state -- Secretaries Kissinger, Baker, Eagleburger and Haig. And I'm proud to have the endorsement of well over 200 retired Army generals and admirals. But I respect and continue to respect and admire Secretary Powell."

'Most Important Endorsement of the Campaign'

The endorsement by Powell, a retired four-star Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush, was the buzz of the Sunday morning talk shows, with former presidential adviser David Gergen saying during a "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" roundtable discussion that it was "the most important endorsement of the campaign so far."

"What that just did in one sound bite," former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said during the same discussion, "is it eliminated the experience argument."

"This is an endorsement that has enormous dividend for Sen. Obama," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile added, "not only in helping to erase any remaining doubts about his national security agenda, his experience, but also it says that he wants to govern in a different way -- different than, say, past administrations where you relied on just his base or his party. ... It says that he's going to reach across the aisle. And perhaps this is a good way for Sen. Obama to put that message out in the closing weeks of the campaign."

Powell: 'We Need a Transformational Figure'

Powell had announced his support for Obama just minutes earlier in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"Because of [Obama's] ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of this campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities -- we have to take that into account -- as well as his substance -- he has both style and substance -- he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president," Powell said.

"I think we need a transformational figure," Powell said. "I think we need a president who is a generational change, and that's why I'm supporting Barack Obama -- not out of any lack of respect or admiration for Sen. McCain."

Powell has been one of the country's most respected public figures, and both Obama and McCain have sought his endorsement for months.

Though endorsements tend to reinforce voter predispositions rather than change them, polls have suggested a nod from Powell might make a difference among some voters. Powell's endorsement may be unusual in that it both crosses the partisan aisle and comes from a particularly well-liked quasi-political figure -- one, as a bonus, who's steeped in the military experience Obama lacks.

Powell Rips McCain Campaign

Perhaps heightening that effect, Powell gave a scathing critique of the McCain campaign as he endorsed Obama, saying he was "disappointed" by the approach the Republican side has taken on the issues.

"I have some concerns about the direction that the party has taken in recent years," Powell said. "It has moved more to the right than I would like to see it. But that's a choice the party makes."

Powell also expressed concern with the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's vice presidential nominee.

"She's a very distinguished woman and she's to be admired," Powell said, "but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Sen. McCain made."

Powell, who served as President Bush's secretary of state during his first term, becoming the first African American to reach that office, voiced concern over McCain and Republican National Committee campaign tactics.

He cited the GOP's effort to tie Obama to former 1970s radical William Ayers.

"This Bill Ayers situation that's been going on for weeks: Why do we keep talking about him. Why do we have these robocalls [arguing about an Obama-Ayers link] going around the country?" Powell asked.

Troubled by conservative whispers that Obama is a Muslim, Powell gave a passionate defense of Obama and Muslim Americans.

"The correct answer. He is not a Muslim," Powell said. "He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: 'What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That's not America."

He cited a story about a Muslim American solider who died serving in Iraq to argue that Muslim Americans also love and defend America.

Powell cited the economy as the most important issue the next president will have to deal with, and said that he's convinced Obama would better lead the country out of the economic crisis.

"In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to how to deal with the economic problems we're having," he said.

Big Day for Obama Despite McCain Slaps

Powell's comments were part of a big day for Obama, whose campaign announced that it raised an astounding $150 million in September -- easily an all-time record. The haul continues a huge money advantage Obama has built over McCain since forgoing public financing for his campaign.

But the McCain campaign got in a few shots today, as well, responding to Obama's Fayetteville comments on the Powell endorsement with a slap at the Democrat.

"Only an unproven and inexperienced politician like Barack Obama would have to rely so heavily on an another man's resume in making the case for his own candidacy -- and it shows that he's just not ready," said Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for McCain-Palin 2008.

In addition, radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested today that Obama's race may have played a part in Powell's endorsement. Powell denied race had any connection, but did say Obama's election would be historic.

At his rally in Fayetteville, part of his campaign swing through traditionally Republican-leaning states, Obama worked to incorporate Powell into the themes of his stump speech.

"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," Obama said.

He invoked Powell's name when defending himself against some of the attacks coming lately from the McCain campaign.

"He reminded us that at this defining moment, we don't have the luxury of relying on the same political games, the same political tactics that are used every election to divide us from one another and make us afraid of one another," Obama said.

Specifically, Obama tried to parry the new charge from the McCain team, that his tax plan amounts to socialism.

"Socialism!" scoffed Obama to a booing crowd, "it's kind of hard to figure how Warren Buffet endorsed me, Colin Powell endorses me, and John McCain thinks I'm passing socialism."

While Obama largely stuck to his stump speech, he did pounce on some recent gaffes by the McCain campaign.

Saturday, a McCain surrogate suggested Northern Virginia is not "Real Virginia," and Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's vice presidential pick, has commented on visiting pro-America parts of the country.

"There are no real or fake parts of this country," Obama said today. "We are not separated by the pro-America and anti-America parts of this nation. We all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from."

Obama Heckled: 'Socialist! Get Out of Here!'

But though he leads in polls nationally and in key states, evidently not everyone loves Obama.

Stopping for food at Cape Fear BBQ and Chicken in Fayetteville, Obama was greeted by a 54-year-old woman shouting, "Socialist! Socialist! Socialist! Get out of here!"

The woman, Diane Fanning, who works at a Sam's Club, was among the older and largely white crowd eating lunch after church services.

Sitting next to Fanning, Lenox Bramble, 76, gave her an angry look.

"Be civil, be courteous," he said.

Bramble later told a reporter he's voting for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and doesn't think Obama has enough experience.

Another diner, Cecilia Hayslip, 61, yelled back at Fanning, "At least he's not a war-monger!"

Obama came to the long table where Fanning was eating with fellow congregants from the local First Presbyterian church.

Obama held out his hand to her.

"How are you, ma'am?" he asked.

She refused to shake his hand.

Obama spoke with other, friendlier members of the congregation about health care, Social Security and taxes.

Fanning explained their courtesy to a reporter, saying, "Some of 'em are just nicer than I am. I know how some of 'em think."

Mixed Reception in a Red State

The reception in Republican-leaning diner was decidedly mixed.

"You're doing a great job," said Betty Waylett, 76, a Republican who said she plans to vote for Obama.

Pastor Randal Bremer, also at the table, said Obama told him, "Whether you vote for me or not I'll need your prayers."

"I'm very impressed by his ability to meet people on a down-to-earth level," said Bremer, who plans to vote for McCain because he prefers smaller government and McCain's position on the Iraq war. "I don't want to see [recent gains made in Iraq] damaged by a premature pull-out," he said.

"I'm surprised, but I'm not going to say anything else," said Pat Smith.

A group of six retired women, mostly Democrats, remained undecided.

"I have to pray about it, think about what's best for our country," said one of them, Dorothy Buie.

Fanning was aware of the endorsement Obama received today from Powell but was unimpressed.

"Colin Powell is a RINO, R-I-N-O, Republican In Name Only," she said.

ABC News' Mary Bruce, Gary Langer, Sunlen Miller, Ursula Fahy, John Cochran, George Stephanopoulos, Joel Siegel, Michael S. James and Bret Hovell contributed to this report.