Updated: 3:53 p.m. ET
At the height of an election that has been characterized as among the most racially polarizing in years, top Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu on Thursday suggested that Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, endorsed President Obama in part due to race.
Sununu, the former Republican governor of New Hampshire and the co-chair of the Romney campaign, downplayed the significance of the endorsement to CNN's Piers Morgan, and suggested Powell, a Republican who also endorsed Mr. Obama in 2008, had a "slightly different reason" for doing so than other prominent politicians.
"When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to look at whether that's an endorsement based on issues or he's got a slightly different reason for endorsing President Obama," he said. "I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him."
The Romney campaign later walked back Sununu's statement, sending out an email on his behalf calling Powell a "friend" and expressing "respect" for his decision.
"I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the President's policies," Sununu said in the statement. "Piers Morgan's question was whether Colin Powell should leave the party, and I don't think he should."
Asked about the comment in a radio interview on Friday, Mr. Obama said he'd "let General Powell's statements stand for themselves" but dismissed the notion that the endorsement was less credible because he and Powell are both African-American.
"I'll let General Powell's statements stand for themselves. He spoke about the fact that my foreign policy during a very difficult time had been steady and strong, he talked about with respect to our economy that we had helped to rescue America from a potential great depression, and that we were moving in the right direction," Mr. Obama said. "I don't think that there are many people in America who would question General Powell's credibility, his patriotism, his willingness to tell it straight, and so any suggestion that General Powell would make such a profound statement in such an important election based on anything than what he thought was what's going to be best for America I think doesn't make much sense."
The Romney camp limited its response to the statement it sent out on behalf of Sununu. But some argued that the comment highlighted the ongoing influence of racial presumptions in America.
New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, who is African-American, on Friday called Sununu's comments "disrespectful," "dumb," and "unfortunate," and said "we should talk about those issues and presumptions that still often exist."
In the final days of an increasingly tight race, however, Booker argued that voters should be focusing on "the candidates themselves, what their plans and platforms are."