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Jeff J Mitchell  /  Getty Images file
Colin Powell boosted fellow Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Will he give his blessing to Democrat Barack Obama this year?
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 7/10/2008 5:20:24 PM ET 2008-07-10T21:20:24

Eight years ago, Gen. Colin Powell had nothing but praise for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff campaigned for Bush and served as one his foreign policy advisors.

In his keynote address at the 2000 GOP convention, Powell said of Bush, "He has been successful in bringing more and more minorities into the tent by responding to their deepest needs. Some call it compassionate conservatism. To me, it’s just about caring for people...I know he can help bridge our racial divides."

Bush won, thanks in part to Powell. But after almost four years as Bush's secretary of state, it ended badly. On Nov. 15, 2004, Powell announced his resignation. Recently he has been harshly critical of the Iraq war which his advocacy helped launch.

In a speech last month in Canada, Powell said the Bush administration was in "disarray" over how to govern Iraq after the 2003 invasion. "If we had handled the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad differently then we wouldn't be where we are today," Powell said, according to the Vancouver Sun.

Having vouched for Bush in 2000, will Powell now do do a cross-over and give his backing to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama?

If he does, he'll join a roster of prominent politicians who crossed party lines to make presidential endorsements. These high-profile endorsements can make for good television and can help a candidate with a perceived weakness, even if the effect of the endorsement on voters is difficult to measure.

Powell is being closely watched in part because he's one of the most prominent African-American Republicans in Washington.

Meeting with both sides
Powell has met with both candidates, and has yet to make an endorsement, but is sending out plenty of mixed signals.

He donated $2,300 to John McCain's campaign, but he's been generous with praise for Obama and told CNN in February he'd be open to voting for a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.

In January, Powell had this to say on PBS: "...let's enjoy this moment where a person like Barack Obama can knock down all these old barriers that people thought existed with respect to the opportunities that are available to African Americans, and my congratulations to him."

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Video: 2003: Powell's case against Saddam Hussein Armed with spitballs?
Party crossovers are often applauded for bipartisanship — especially by the candidate who is welcoming them to his cause.

Sometimes, as in the case of Texas Democratic Gov. John Connally's backing of Richard Nixon in 1972, they are an alliance of two canny, ambitious politicians.

And sometimes crossovers make for a memorable television moment.

Who can forget Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller’s richly sardonic speech four years ago at the Republican convention in New York City?

“This is the man who wants to be commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces?" Miller said of Democratic nominee John Kerry. "U.S. forces armed with what — spitballs?"

But do crossover endorsements influence voters? Can they tip an election?

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a canny veteran of many campaigns, is convinced that a last-minute TV ad endorsement by former Democratic Gov. Mills Godwin of Virginia helped him win his Senate seat in 1978. Godwin had switched from the Democratic to the Republican party in 1973.

Coming to Bill Clinton's aid
At times a cross-over endorser’s credentials help a candidate cope with a vulnerability.

Bill Clinton benefited in 1992 from the endorsement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents Reagan and Bush.

Retired Adm. William Crowe came to Clinton’s aid at a time when Republicans were reminding voters how hard Clinton had worked to avoid the draft — even as many men his age were being sent to fight in Vietnam in 1969. “The press may be obsessed with this particular issue. I am not,” Crowe told reporters as he stood with Clinton in Little Rock, Ark.

Although Crowe wasn’t an elected Republican official, he was associated with the two Republican presidents under whom he served.

Crossovers matter most — and are least likely — when the endorser has been a stalwart loyalist for one party, but suddenly aligns himself with the candidate of the opposing party.

It had a powerful impact on the 1940 presidential campaign when Republican elder statesman Henry Stimson, who'd served as Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, agreed to join Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet as secretary of war.

The impact was dramatic because Roosevelt made this unexpected move almost on the eve of the Republican convention.

Stimson didn't campaign for Roosevelt in 1940 — he didn't need to. Joining his cabinet was a strong enough statement in itself.

Ex-Republican Chafee backs Obama
Former Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s backing of Obama falls short of this standard.

Long at cross purposes with most Republicans, Chafee was the sole Republican to vote against the Iraq war resolution and the only one to vote "no" on Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito in 2006.

Chafee’s liberal brand of Republicanism had become almost extinct by the time Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse beat him in 2006. Chafee has since left his former party.

His endorsement of Obama merely confirmed what everyone already knew about Obama's appeal to liberal Republicans and independents.

Apart from Powell, what would be the most advantageous endorsement that Obama could get in order to show he's “post-partisan” or bipartisan?

Video: Candidates spar on economy Three prominent Republicans come to mind:

  • Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., is a critic of the Iraq war and a man who often speaks about how disillusioned he is with the Republican Party. Last month Hagel said that even though “John is an old friend, and we talk often,” he may not endorse any candidate for president.
  • Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is bipartisan in an old-fashioned gentlemanly way. He was first elected to public office in Indiana when Obama was a toddler. In 2005, Lugar went on a trip with Obama to Russia to investigate security of nuclear materials. But he told the South Bend, Ind. Tribune last month, “I cast a vote for John McCain recently in the Indianaprimary. And I will do the same in the fall.”
  • Sandra Day O’Connor is a retired Supreme Court justice, an appointee of Ronald Reagan, and leaned toward the liberal side on issues such as abortion and racial preferences when she served on the high court. But retired justices don’t endorse presidential candidates.

Video: Obama on Iran, campaign

Another Lieberman?
So far, Democrats for McCain, at least the well-known ones, comprise a group that could fit into a modest alcove.

It’s hard to surpass maverick 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of McCain’s most ardent supporters, but is there another Lieberman out there?

James Woolsey is the other prominent former Democratic official who is backing McCain. Woolsey served in the Jimmy Carter administration as undersecretary of the Navy and had a stormy two-year stint as CIA director under Clinton.

He backed Republican Bob Dole in 1996 election, but chipped in $500 to the Senate campaign of Democrat Jim Webb in his Senate race in 2006 in Virginia. (Webb himself is a former Republican.) Woolsey also contributed $4,200 to Lieberman’s 2006 Senate race.

Election A to ZIn theory, the most likely pool of possible "McCain Democrats" would seem to be Southern conservative Democrats in Congress.

But its improbable that any of them of will endorse him. Here's why: The Democrats will in all likelihood control the Congress again next year, so no congressional Democrat would choose to commit political hara-kiri by such a show of party disloyalty.

At most, some Southern House Democrats will say, not for attribution, that they think McCain will win their districts and their states, and that they don’t plan to be active for Obama. Unlike Colin Powell, these men must run for re-election.

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