Powell defects from McCain to hail 'inspirational' Obama

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Colin Powell broke with his party to endorse Barack Obama yesterday, giving a powerfully-worded interview that described the Democratic candidate as a “transformational figure” who has the power to become one of America’s greatest presidents.

In one of the most symbolic moments of an already-groundbreaking election, the Republican former Secretary of State criticised the tone of John McCain’s campaign, and said Senator Obama is better-suited to solving the problems facing both the US nation.

Powell’s announcement, just over a fortnight before America goes to the polls, marked the biggest cross-party endorsement either candidate has secured so far and allowed the Democrats to dominate the headlines for another day. As a four-star general and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who has worked closely with three Republican presidents, Powell's support will calm fears that Obama is too inexperienced to be President, and may shift undecided right-leaning voters into the Democrat camp.

“Obama has displayed a steadiness; showed intellectual vigour. He has a definitive way of doing business that will do us well,” Powell said in an appearance on NBC’s Sunday morning chat-show Meet the Press. “He has both style and substance.”

“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 Senator John McCain.”

Addressing a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Mr Obama said: “I am beyond honoured and deeply humbled to have the support of General Colin Powell. He knows, as we do, that this is a moment where we all need to come together as one nation - young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat.”

Mr Powell’s announcements kicked-off a positive day for the Democrats, who also announced they had raised more than $150 million in September, the biggest monthly haul in American political history.

Mr Obama has now generated over $600 million, with 632,000 new donors joining campaign last month. Over the course of the campaign, 3.1 million Americans have helped create a war-chest that will now allow him to secure blanket television advertising in the run up to polling day.

By comparison, John McCain’s campaign raised just $66 million during the month of September, and at the start of October, their cash reserves stood at around $25 million.

Mr Powell’s support is not for sale. Despite being a close friend with McCain for 25 years, he has been upset by the negative nature of his recent campaign, including its focus on Obama’s relationship with the 1960s radical Bill Ayres.

“Mr McCain says that [Ayres] is a washed up terrorist, but then why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have the 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?”

“What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that's inappropriate. Now, I understand what politics is all about, I know how you can go after one another and that’s good. But I think this goes too far, and I think it has made the McCain campaign look a little narrow. It's not what the American people are looking for.”

Mr Powell also expressed disappointment in McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. “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. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment of Senator McCain.”

Although Powell will not be campaigning on Obama’s behalf, he is a major scalp and has been courted by the Democrats for well over a year. Despite his close ties to the Republicans, he boasts widespread cross-party support that at one time made him a serious contender for the presidency, and even afforded him gentle treatment in Oliver Stone’s new film W.

Some right-wing commentators were yesterday attempting to suggest that race lies behind his endorsement of the Illinois senator, however Mr Powell is thought to boast support from across ethnic groups.

Mr McCain, for his part, was thrown on the defensive by the announcement. In an interview with Fox news, he said he has been endorsed by four other former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, James A. Baker III, Lawrence Eagleburger and Alexander Haig.

“Well, I've always admired and respected Genera Powell. We’re longtime friends. This doesn't come as a surprise,” he said. “We have a very, we have a respectful disagreement, and I think the American people will pay close attention to our message for the future and keeping America secure.”

Meanwhile election polls continue to paint a confusing picture. Some have Obama ten points ahead of his rival, while others suggest the race is far tighter. A Zogby survey for the news agency Reuters published on Saturday found Mr McCain to be only 2.7 points behind.

Newspapers, however, are falling into line behind Obama with a majority of three to one. A total of 55 major titles now support him, in comparison with 15 for his Republican rival.

At the weekend, Obama picked up the support of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, which has never previously supported a Democratic nominee. “We have tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigour, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions. He is ready,” wrote the newspaper from Mr Obama’s home city.