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Big bucks and a big name favor Obama

Times Staff Writers

Barack Obama strongly boosted his presidential prospects on Sunday, winning the coveted endorsement of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and ringing up a staggering $150 million in contributions in a single month of fundraising.

The endorsement from one of the country’s most respected statesman-soldiers enhances Obama’s credibility on national security issues, and his huge cash haul allows him to extend his crucial advantage on the television airwaves.

The Illinois senator’s showing came as he continued to drive deep into Republican territory, stumping in North Carolina, which has not backed a Democrat for president since 1976.

Republican John McCain campaigned Sunday in must-win Ohio, where polls show a close race, and spent part of the day defending running mate Sarah Palin’s qualifications on national television and in a call with Jewish leaders.

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The day’s main stage, however, was a TV studio in Washington, where the retired four-star Army general ended months of speculation by crossing party lines to support Obama, who is vying to become the nation’s first African American president.

“I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation . . . coming onto the world stage, onto the American stage; and for that reason, I’ll be voting for Sen. Barack Obama,” Powell said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

Given his credentials -- as secretary of State for President Bush, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush’s father, and national security advisor to President Reagan -- Powell’s vote of confidence may allay concerns about Obama’s readiness to be commander in chief, one of the Republicans’ primary lines of attack.

“What that just did in one sound bite -- and I assume that sound bite will end up in an ad -- is it eliminated the experience argument,” former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on ABC’s “This Week.”

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For all its potency, however, Powell’s endorsement may have been only the second most important political development of the day, coming hours after the Obama campaign announced its latest fundraising total in an e-mail to supporters.

The $150-million figure shattered the previous monthly record and, combined with the $49.5 million raised by the Democratic Party in September, gives Obama a gargantuan financial advantage over McCain with just more than two weeks to go in the race.

“Presidential campaigns are about making tough decisions with limited resources,” said University of Wisconsin political scientist Ken Goldstein, who tracks presidential campaign spending on television. “Obama doesn’t need to make tough decisions.”

Indeed, Obama has used his riches to mount serious challenges in such traditional GOP strongholds as Indiana, Nevada, Virginia and here in North Carolina, where polls show the race essentially even.

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Obama has a significant cash advantage over McCain, who accepted $84.1 million in federal funding for the fall campaign and can spend no more than that amount. Obama had initially said he would accept public financing if McCain did, but changed his mind after his strong fundraising performance in the primaries.

By opting out of the government financing system -- and becoming the first major-party candidate to do so since it was set up in 1976 -- Obama is free to raise and spend unlimited sums. Overall, Obama has raised a record $605 million for his campaign.

Powell, 71, who once considered a history-making bid to become America’s first black president himself, said he reached this decision after closely observing Obama and McCain over the last two months.

He said the GOP nominee did not seem to grasp the depth of the global financial crisis and appeared to offer shifting solutions to it.

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He called Alaska Gov. Palin “a distinguished woman,” but added, “I don’t believe she’s ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president.”

Powell expressed disappointment at the tone of McCain’s campaign, saying the Arizona senator and GOP operatives were resorting to “demagoguery” in their portrayal of Obama’s dealings with William Ayers, a Vietnam-era radical who is now an education professor. The two men are not close, but have served together on civic boards in Chicago.

“It isn’t easy for me to disappoint Sen. McCain in the way that I have this morning, and I regret that,” Powell said, adding that the two Vietnam veterans had known each other for 25 years. “But I strongly believe that at this point in America’s history, we need a president . . . who will not just continue, basically, the policies that we have been following in recent years.”

Obama acknowledged Powell’s support at a rally in Fayetteville. “I have been honored to have the benefit of his wisdom and his counsel from time to time over the last few years, but today I am beyond honored,” he said.

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McCain said he was not surprised by Powell’s decision. “We have a respectful disagreement,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Obama’s tactical advantage was evident from Sunday’s light schedule: a lone event in a state that he does not need to win. Appearing at Fayetteville’s sports arena, Obama laced into McCain, summoning some of the high-flown rhetoric that helped launch the Democrat’s national rise. And, in a rare mention, he attacked McCain’s running mate.

Last week, Palin extolled the values of what she called “the real America” and “very pro-America areas.” On Saturday, a campaign aide spoke about McCain’s support in the “real Virginia,” as opposed to the northern suburbs near the nation’s capital.

Obama shouted his response over the roar from the crowd of more than 10,000. “There are not real or fake parts of this country,” he said. “We’re not separated by the pro-America and anti-America part of this country. We all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from.”

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Fayetteville is near Ft. Bragg, one of the Army’s largest installations. Some in the crowd had military buzz cuts, and a few came in camouflage.

“The men and women from Fayetteville and all across America who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats or Republicans or independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag,” Obama said. “They have not served a red America or a blue America. They have served the United States of America.”

The Republican candidate held two rallies in Ohio, rushing through his standard speech so quickly that he left both ahead of schedule. At the convention center in Toledo, which was half-full, the crowd barely responded at times to his applause lines.

In Toledo, which is near the town where Joseph Wurzelbacher challenged Obama on his tax plan, McCain cited the now-famous plumber to press his argument that his opponent’s agenda would hurt businesspeople in a time of economic stress. “I won’t raise taxes on small businesses, as Sen. Obama proposes, and force them to cut jobs,” he said.

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McCain had invited Wurzelbacher to join him Sunday, but the burly Everyman rebuffed the offer and instead took his son and father to New York City, where he appeared on a Fox News talk show hosted by former GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. McCain is scheduled to campaign in the area again at midweek, and aides said the invitation stood.

Wurzelbacher has acknowledged that his taxes would actually be cut under Obama’s proposal, but McCain and Palin continue to intone his name frequently to try to connect with swing voters who are increasingly skeptical that the duo can be trusted to fix the economy.

McCain has also been forced to spend more time trying to reassure anxious voters -- including many Republicans -- that Palin is qualified to assume the presidency.

Twice on Sunday morning, in an interview on Fox News and later in a conference call with Orthodox rabbis and other Jewish leaders, McCain defended his decision to select the first-term governor and former small-town mayor.

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He also opened his remarks at his first rally, in Westerville, Ohio, by praising Palin as “a role model and a reformer” who had “energized America.”

Palin electrified delegates at the Republican National Convention and continues to draw far larger, more euphoric crowds than McCain. And, initially, she helped McCain rise sharply in the polls and briefly overtake Obama’s once solid lead in national polls.

But the bounce subsided quickly amid the economic crisis. Despite Palin’s credible performance in the one vice presidential debate, polls show that she has become a liability for McCain, with a plurality saying her presence makes them less likely to vote for the GOP ticket.

But McCain admits to no second thoughts. He called his running mate “a direct counterpoint to the liberal feminist agenda for America,” and insisted that he “could not be more pleased.”

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“She’s the best thing that could have happened to my campaign and to America,” he said on Fox News. “And when I see the enthusiasm and I see the passion that she has aroused, I am so happy.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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Barabak reported from Dunn and Fayetteville, N.C.; Schmitt from Washington. Times staff writers Bob Drogin in Westerville and Toledo, Ohio, and Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this report.


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