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Powell endorses Obama, polls show McCain dipping

Steven R. Hurst
Powell endorses Obama, polls show McCain dipping
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell leaves federal court in Washington on Oct. 10, 2008. Powell, a Republican who was President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president on Sunday and criticized the tone of Republican nominee John McCain’s campaign. The retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said both Obama and McCain are qualified to be commander in chief, but that Obama is better suited to handle the nation’s economic problems, as well as help improve its standing in the world. (Photo: AP /Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Democrat Barack Obama won the endorsement Sunday of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican and fellow African American who served as the country’s top diplomat in the first George W. Bush administration. He called the Illinois senator a “transformational figure.”

The politically powerful endorsement from Powell, a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could do much to undercut Republican opponent John McCain’s argument that Obama is not ready and too risky to serve as the U.S. military commander in chief.

“I think we need a transformational figure. 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. John McCain,” Powell said on NBC television.

McCain’s strongest campaign credentials are his long background in military and national security affairs, and he is a hero of the Vietnam War, during which he was held prisoner for 5 1/2 years. He said he was not surprised by the Powell endorsement of Obama, but noted he was backed by four other former secretaries of state and scores of past and present military leaders.

Obama, meanwhile, reported on Sunday raising more than $150 million in September, an unprecedented outpouring of private political donations that further widened his financial advantage over McCain, who has been likening his opponent to European socialists.

The September haul boosted Obama’s fundraising total to $605 million, a campaign war chest far larger than any seen in U.S. presidential contests. The Illinois senator’s September donations alone were nearly double the $84 million McCain had available in federal funding for the final two months before the Nov. 4 election. McCain chose to participate in the public financing system; Obama opted out, leaving him able to raise and spend unlimited money from the public.

McCain, the 72-year-old four-term Arizona senator, said on Fox News on Sunday that Obama had been able to raise that money after reneging on a promise to join him in public financing, a move that he said invited political corruption.

“History shows us where unlimited amounts of money are in political campaigns, it leads to scandal,” McCain said, referring to the public financing law that was passed after President Richard Nixon resigned in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the campaign had added 632,000 new donors in September, for a total of 3.1 million contributors to the campaign. The average donation was $86, he said in a Sunday morning e-mail to supporters.

The Democratic National Committee, moments later, announced that it had raised $49.9 million in September and had $27.5 million in the bank at the start of October. The party has been raising money through joint fundraising events with Obama and can use the money to assist his candidacy.

Obama’s September take was 2.3 times the $65 million he raked in during August, his previous monthly best.

Obama had initially promised to accept public financing if McCain did, but changed his mind after setting primary fundraising records. The extraordinary outpouring of public giving could doom the taxpayer-paid system. Many Republicans have begun to second-guess McCain’s decision to participate in the program.

With his vast bankroll and increasing public anxiety over the economy, Obama has secured his foothold in states that have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the past. But he has also been able to expand the contest to reliably Republican states, forcing McCain and the Republican Party to spend their money defensively.

The presidential contest is not decided by the nationwide popular vote, but is instead a state-by-state contest to win electors who are apportioned according to state population. An Associated Press analysis shows Obama with the advantage in states representing 264 electoral votes — just shy of the 270 needed for victory. McCain is favored in states representing 185 votes, with six states totaling 80 electoral votes up in the air.

Plouffe said the campaign now is spending resources in West Virginia, where polls show the race tightening. Obama’s running mate Joe Biden was scheduled to campaign in the state capital on Friday and the campaign will advertise on television there for the next two weeks, according to ad data obtained by AP.

Plouffe hinted at further expansion, noting that public opinion polls show Obama gaining ground in Georgia and North Dakota. Only recently, all three of those states were widely expected to go to McCain by wide margins.

As much as Obama raised, he needed a big fundraising month to justify his decision to bypass the public finance system. Financially, he has been competing not only against McCain, but also against the Republican Party, which raised $66 million in September.

But the combined Obama and Democratic Party totals for September give Obama a distinct financial advantage with the election less than two weeks away.

The candidates’ itineraries underscored McCain’s mounting problems in states that traditionally have been safe for Republicans.

Obama spent last Saturday in Missouri, a bellwether state that voted for President George W. Bush in 2004. Campaign aides, citing local police, estimated 100,000 people turned out to hear him at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and later 75,000 turned out for a speech at dusk across the state in Kansas City.

Only once since 1904 has the state failed to vote for the ultimate presidential election winner.

McCain campaigned in North Carolina and Virginia, a pair of traditionally Republican states he is struggling to hold.

The last Democratic candidate to win North Carolina was Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976, when the Republicans were reeling from President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal. Virginia has not voted for a Democratic nominee since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964.

Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

(Associated Press)