WASHINGTON (AP) _ Colin Powell, a Republican who was President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president Sunday and criticized the tone of Republican John McCain’s campaign.
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said either candidate, both of them senators, is qualified to be commander in chief. But he said Obama is better suited to handle the nation’s economic problems as well as help improve its standing in the world.
“It isn't easy for me to disappoint Sen. McCain in the way that I have this morning, and I regret that,'' Powell, interviewed on NBC television's “Meet the Press,'' said of his longtime friend, the Arizona senator.
But, he added: “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's endorsement has been much anticipated because he is a Republican with impressive foreign policy credentials, a subject on which Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, is weak. Powell is a Republican centrist who is popular among moderate voters.
At the same time, Powell is a black man and Obama would be the nation's first black president. Powell said he was cognizant of the racial aspect of his endorsement, but said that was not the dominant factor in his decision. If it was, he said, he would have made the endorsement months ago.
Powell expressed disappointment in the negative tone of McCain's campaign, his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate, and McCain's and Palin's decision to focus in the closing weeks of the contest on Obama's ties to 1960s-era radical William Ayers.
A co-founder of the Weather Underground, which claimed responsibility for nonfatal bombings during the Vietnam War-era, Ayers is now a college professor who lives in Obama's Chicago neighborhood. He and Obama also served together on civic boards in Chicago.
“This Bill Ayers situation that's been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign,'' Powell said. “But Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him?''
Powell said McCain's choice of Palin raised questions about his judgment.
“I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States,'' Powell said.
McCain seemed dismissive of Powell's endorsement, saying he had support from four other former secretaries of state, all veterans of Republican administrations: Henry Kissinger, James A. Baker III, Lawrence Eagleburger and Alexander Haig.
“Well, I've always admired and respected Gen. Powell. We're longtime friends. This doesn't come as a surprise,'' he said on “Fox News Sunday.''
Asked whether Powell's endorsement would undercut his campaign's assertion that Obama is not ready to lead, McCain said: “Well, again, 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.''
Obama called Powell to thank him for the endorsement, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
“I am beyond honored and deeply humbled to have the support of Gen. Colin Powell,'' Obama said in remarks prepared for a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Gen. Powell has defended this nation bravely, and he has embodied our highest ideals through his long and distinguished public service. … And 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.''
Powell said he remains a Republican, even though he sees the party moving too far to the right. Powell supports abortion rights and affirmative action for minorities, and said McCain and Palin, both opponents of abortion, could put two more conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
“I would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, but that's what we'd be looking at in a McCain administration,'' Powell said.
Powell, 71, gained popularity while serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's top military commander, during the first Gulf war under President George H.W. Bush. After retiring from the military, speculation mounted that he would run for president in 1996 _ perhaps becoming the nation's first black president _ but Powell opted against it.
As secretary of state, he helped make the case before the United Nations for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, launched in March 2003.
Powell said the nation's economic crisis provided a “final exam'' of sorts for both Obama and McCain.
“In the case of Mr. McCain I found that he was a little unsure as to how to deal with the economic problems that we were having,'' Powell said. “Almost everyday there was a different approach to the problem and that concerned me, sensing that he doesn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had.''
In contrast, Powell said Obama “displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this. …''
“I think that he has a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well,'' Powell said.
Powell said he does not plan to campaign for Obama.
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Pictured above is Colin Powell.
Pictured above is Colin Powell.