WASHINGTON — Colin Powell, a retired general who'd often been mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate himself, endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president Sunday during the taping of NBC's "Meet the Press" television program.
Political analysts said Powell's endorsement, coupled with a blistering critique of the campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain, especially of the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, was a serious blow to McCain's candidacy, particularly in swing states with large numbers of undecided voters.
"It was a devastating critique. He gave a convincing national endorsement. That's what made it so damaging," said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "This is a more important endorsement than Oprah's."
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said that Powell appeals to independents who are socially liberal, fiscally conservative and moderate on defense issues. Because they shun party labels, they are more swayed by personality, and Powell is a respected national figure. Independents make as much as 9 percent of voters in swing states.
The timing of the endorsement is key as well. In some swing states, voting has already begun. And in Florida, early voting begins Monday. Obama will be campaigning in Tampa.
"That is why this is a prized endorsement," MacManus said. "I can't think of a more important endorsement at this point in the campaign."
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, echoed this comments.
"This is a huge endorsement, maybe the most significant endorsement he's got," Madonna said. "For undecided voters who are looking at their concerns about national security and defense, this is a plus."
Obama, in Fyatteville, N.C., said he was "beyond honored and deeply humbled" by Powell's endorsement.
McCain, interviewed on Fox News, discounted the potential impact. "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."
McCain made it clear later in a conference call with Jewish leaders that he intended to hammer home his attack on Obama's economic and tax policies, a strategy he said is working.
"I believe Sen. Obama's comments to Joe the Plumber in his driveway that they need to 'Spread the wealth around,' I think, is having an impact on the American people. I guarantee you," McCain said.
McCain also promised to continue to bring up Obama's ties to former Vietnam-era radical William Ayers, though he told the Jewish leaders that discussion of Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was off the table.
Powell said that McCain's emphasis on Ayers — whose fleeting relationship with Obama, Powell said, was irrelevant to America's concerns now — was one of the reasons he found McCain's campaign disheartening.
In a seven-minute explication of his reasons for endorsing Obama, Powell also critcized McCain for his response to the economic crisis and said that McCain's choice of Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate led him to question McCain's judgment.
"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, Powell said.
"It isn't easy for me to disappoint Senator McCain in the way that I have this morning, and I regret that," Powell said. "But I strongly believe that at this point in America's history we need a president that will not just continue — even with a new face and with some changes and with some maverick aspects — will not just continue basically the policies that we have been following in recent years.
"I think we need a transformational figure, I think that 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 Senator John McCain."
Powell, who served as President George W. Bush's secretary of state during Bush's first term and made the case for an Iraq invasion before the United Nations, said Obama had shown that he had the "intellectual vigor" to be president.
Powell left the secretary of State's office after Bush won re-election in 2004. Since he left office, friends have said Powell has voiced dismay at his role in pressing the Iraq invasion, but until Sunday he had made no public statements regarding his political positions.