Democrat Barack Obama snared the coveted endorsement of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and announced a record-shattering fundraising haul, handing another setback to Republican John McCain's lagging presidential campaign.
The decision by Powell, a Republican who served as President George W. Bush's first secretary of state, undermines McCain's claim that his rival is not ready to be commander-in-chief of the US military. It could help Obama seal the deal with independent and moderate voters concerned about his qualifications in the final two weeks before the November 4 election.
Obama's staggering $150 million in donations in September more than doubles his previous record, and gives him leverage to campaign in battleground states and to force McCain to defend Republican turf.
McCain, meanwhile, stumped in swing state Ohio, pushing himself as an advocate of working class Americans and small business owners, and asserting that the Illinois senator's tax plan amounted to socialism.
Powell called McCain's words "an unfortunate characterization that isn't accurate" and part of an overly negative campaign by "my beloved friend and colleague John McCain, a friend of 25 years."
"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.
The Gallup Poll daily tracking survey showed on Sunday that Obama was leading McCain nationally by 10 percentage points, 52-42, an uptick after declining to as little six points last week.
In addition to criticizing what he said was an overly negative McCain campaign, Powell said the 72-year-old senate veteran's running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, was not presidential timber.
"I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president," Powell said.
McCain was being interviewed on Fox News as Powell endorsed Obama. He reacted by reminding viewers he had the backing of four former secretaries of state and scores of current and former military leaders. "We have a respectful disagreement," he said of Powell.
In an interview Sunday with New York's WWOR-TV, Palin responded to Powell's criticism: "I beg to differ with him. Not only will my executive experience be put to very good use ... but also, you know, the vision that I share with John McCain."
Powell is a black man and Obama would be the first black U.S. president. Powell said he recognized the racial aspect of his endorsement, but said that was not the dominant factor in his decision.
Powell also said he was troubled that some Republicans — he excluded McCain — continue to say or allow others to say that Obama is a Muslim.
"He's always been a Christian. 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, that's not America," Powell said.
Powell's move dented one of McCain's major selling points in the campaign — his long background in military and national security affairs and his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner during the Vietnam war.
In recent days McCain has pounded Obama, claiming his tax plan is deeply at odds with the fundamentals of American capitalism.
"I think his plans are for redistribution of wealth. That's one of the tenets of socialism," McCain told Fox, claiming it was a historic position of liberal Democrats and that small businesses would be forced to cut jobs under Obama because their taxes would climb.
Only a small percentage of American small businesses generate incomes above $250,000, and most owners of such enterprises would not be affected under Obama's tax plan.
Obama, in North Carolina, said he is the candidate who is worried about "the cops and firefighters who keep us safe, ... the waitresses who work double shifts, the cashiers at Wal-Mart, the plumbers fighting for the American Dream."
He added: "John McCain thinks that giving these Americans a break is socialism. Well I call it opportunity, and there is nothing more American than that."
In reporting Obama's staggering fundraising for September, campaign manager David Plouffe said the campaign had added 632,000 new donors in the month, for a total of 3.1 million contributors to the campaign. The average donation was US$86, he said in a Sunday morning e-mail to supporters. The take was 2.3 times the US$65 million Obama 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, as many Republicans are second-guessing McCain's decision to participate in it.
Obama is the first post-Watergate candidate to finance a general-election campaign wholly with private funding.
"History shows us where unlimited amounts of money are in political campaigns, it leads to scandal," McCain said.
With his vast bankroll and increasing public anxiety over the economy, Obama has been able to expand the contest to reliably Republican states, forcing McCain and his 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.