In a scramble nearly as intense and hard-fought as the ongoing slugfest for delegates, Senator Barack Obama's campaign came out on top Friday (March 21) in the race to secure the endorsement of former Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson.
The stamp of approval from the governor of New Mexico, who is expected to formally announce his endorsement of Obama at a joint appearance in Oregon on Friday, is a major coup for the Illinois senator. In an e-mail to supporters, Richardson said that it is time for Democrats to "stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will face against John McCain in the fall."
Both Obama and rival Democratic contender Senator Hillary Clinton had been heavily courting Richardson, the country's only Hispanic governor, since he dropped out of the race in January. In a statement reported by The Associated Press, Richardson — who is friendly with the Clintons and was energy secretary and U.N. ambassador in former President Bill Clinton's administration — said that he sees Obama as a "once-in-a-lifetime leader that can bring our nation together and restore America's moral leadership in the world. ... As a presidential candidate, I know full well Senator Obama's unique moral ability to inspire the American people to confront our urgent challenges at home and abroad in a spirit of bipartisanship and reconciliation."
The endorsement could prove to be key for Obama, who has been lagging behind Clinton in the Hispanic vote. It could also help improve his chances among superdelegates, a group Richardson is also a part of.
The news comes at a critical time for Obama, who, after a string of 12 victories in February, had hit a bit of a bumpy patch recently with some primary losses to Clinton and the first major scandal of his candidacy concerning controversial comments by his former pastor. It also comes just days after a new Gallup poll had Clinton leading Obama in nomination preference among Democrats by 49 percent to 42 percent.
At the packed rally in Portland, Oregon, on Friday, the newly bearded Richardson told the crowd, "Earlier this week, an extraordinary American gave a historic speech," alluding to Obama's address on Tuesday on race, which was prompted by the repeated airings of those controversial comments. "Senator Barack Obama addressed the issue of race with the eloquence and sincerity and optimism that we have come to expect of him. He didn't evade the tough issues to soothe us with comforting half-truths. Rather, he inspired us by reminding us of the awesome potential residing in our own responsibility."
In a not-so-subtle dig at Clinton, Richardson said Obama could have given a much safer speech since he is "well ahead in the delegates count for our party's nomination," a red-meat line that drew huge applause. Richardson said the speech showed Obama's skills as a leader and uniter and noted that, "As a Hispanic-American, I was particularly touched by his words," a sign that the speech may have been the tipping point in his decision to back the Illinois senator. He went on to call Obama a "courageous, thoughtful leader" who would be a "great and historic" president that he trusted to end the Iraq war and bring U.S. troops home.
For most of the address, Obama stood solemnly by Richardson's side with his arms folded in front of him and a serious expression on his face. Upon beginning his stump speech, Obama warmly embraced and thanked Richardson and then quickly ran down the governor's résumé, highlighting his work on foreign policy, an area that has been one of the Obama's perceived weaknesses.
Though the move by Richardson was clearly a blow to Clinton, who won the New Mexico primary, the New York senator brushed it off, according to CNN, saying that both she and Obama had "many great endorsers," and that "the voters, not endorsers" would decide the contest.
Richardson, who watched the Super Bowl with former President Clinton last month and strove to be an evenhanded voice of reason during his presidential run, said that his decision to go with Obama was made because he thinks the first-term senator "will be a historic and great president, who can bring us the change we so desperately need by bringing us together as a nation here at home and with our allies abroad." Richardson also praised Hillary Clinton, calling her a "distinguished leader with vast experience," according to Richardson's prepared speech, released by the Obama campaign.
In the ongoing battle of experience versus change, the governor said that it's "now time for a new generation of leadership," adding that Obama has "the judgment and courage we need in a commander in chief when our nation's security is on the line."
While Obama has now secured the endorsements of both Richardson and former Democratic hopeful Senator Chris Dodd, former Senator John Edwards — once the strongest rival in the race — has yet to announce his endorsement.
Watch the candidates address the Iraq war and other important issues in "Choose or Lose Presents Clinton & Obama Answer Young Veterans."
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