FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Democrat Barack Obama saw his campaign bolstered on two fronts Sunday — a key endorsement from a nationally known Republican and the announcement of a record month for fundraising — as forces seemed to be aligning in his favor for the final two weeks of the presidential campaign.
Obama aides said the endorsement from retired Gen. Colin Powell during NBC's "Meet the Press" couldn't have come at a better time, as Obama campaigned in this military town next to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, a one-time solidly red state Obama hopes to win.
It came hours after the Obama campaign announced raising a record-shattering $150 million last month — a record for any presidential campaign — and just one day after he broke another record with a crowd of 100,000 at a single rally in St. Louis, Mo.
Obama made it clear he intended to wield Powell's endorsement — and that of billionaire investor Warren Buffett — to fend off Republican rival John McCain's current campaign strategy of labeling Obama's economic and tax policies "socialism."
McCain told Jewish leaders in a conference call that he believes those criticisms are resonating with voters, and he repeated them in campaign stops in Columbus and Toledo, Ohio.
"I believe Senator 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 told the conference call.
"Warren Buffett endorsed me, Colin Powell endorses me, and John McCain thinks I'm embracing socialism?" Obama mockingly told the crowd in Fayetteville.
McCain downplayed Powell's decision in an interview with Fox News. "I've always admired and respected General Powell. We're longtime friends," 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."
Later, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said the Powell endorsement simply was more evidence that Obama is unqualified for the presidency.
"Only an unproven and inexperienced politician like Barack Obama would have to rely so heavily on another man's resume in making the case for his own candidacy — and it shows that he's just not ready," Bounds said in a statement.
But the playing field in the final two weeks looks increasingly tipped in Obama's favor. His record haul of $150 million in fundraising in September will make it possible for Obama to spend even more money on television advertising. McCain, because he accepted federal financing for his campaign, is limited to only $84 million in total expenditures and is being outspent by Obama by large margins in nearly every state.
In a video to supporters, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the campaign will use the money for ads and telephone calls to counter negative attack from McCain and to try to overtake McCain in unlikely states including West Virginia, where Obama is trailing by a wide margin.
Political analysts said they believe Powell's endorsement also could prove critical to Obama's efforts, especially to independents in battleground states.
"For undecided voters who are looking at their concerns about national security and defense, this is a plus," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where McCain is campaigning hard.
"It takes one of his (Obama's) weaknesses and adds an enormous strength," Madonna said.
"It was a devastating critique," Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said of Powell's "Meet the Press" interview. "This is a more important endorsement than Oprah's."
Powell spelled out his criticism of McCain's campaign in a seven-minute response when Tom Brokaw, the "Meet the Press" host, asked whether he was ready to endorse a candidate.
Powell replied that he was, then reminded viewers that he had known McCain for 25 years and had gotten to know Obama "quite well" over the past two years. "Either one of them, I think, would be a good president," he said.
But he then added that he had begun to have doubts about McCain in the past two months. He said he found McCain's response to the economic crisis "unsure."
"Almost every day there was a different approach to the problem" from McCain, Powell said, "and that concerned me, sensing that he didn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had."
McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was also disconcerting, Powell said, "and raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made."
"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.
Powell also said he was disturbed by the McCain campaign's increasingly negative attacks. He singled out the campaign's emphasis on Obama's ties to William Ayers, a University of Illinois professor who founded the radical group the Weather Underground during the Vietnam War.
"Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow, Mr. Obama is tainted," Powell said. "What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that's inappropriate."
Powell also said he was upset by what he described as a Republican effort to conduct a whispering campaign against Obama.
"It is permitted to be said such things as, 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is, 'He is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian'," Powell said. "But the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer's 'No.'"
In contrast, Powell said Obama had "displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems" that "would serve us well."
While Palin was unqualified, Obama's vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, "is ready to be president on Day One."
"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," Powell said.
(Talev reported from Fayetteville, Douglas from Columbus and Toledo. Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this report.)
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