By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy delivered a highly prized endorsement for Sen. Barack Obama yesterday as well as a pointed rebuttal to the main lines of attack used against him by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton.
In a clear reference to the criticism repeated by the Democratic senator from New York and the former president that Obama (D-Ill.) does not have the experience for the White House, Kennedy -- borrowing one of the Clintons' favorite phrases -- said Obama is "ready to be president on Day One."
He also rebutted their contention that Obama has been inconsistent in his opposition to the war in Iraq and said Obama represents a new era and a rejection of "old politics."
"From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth,'' Kennedy (D-Mass.) said.
Kennedy praised Hillary Clinton and the third candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, describing them as "friends" and declaring he would support the party's nominee.
But he was backing the candidate, who, he said, "has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history."
The Kennedy endorsement gave a fresh boost to Obama as the campaign entered its most competitive phase, with primaries in 22 states up for grabs on Super Tuesday next week. It also overshadowed the arrest in Chicago of Tony Rezko, a major contributor to Obama over the years, on charges that he ran a major kickback scheme.
Rezko, who is accused of a bond violation, was arrested by federal agents yesterday morning at his Wilmette, Ill., home. The Chicago Tribune reported that federal investigators had become concerned in recent weeks about the movement of some of his finances. The Clinton campaign has sought to make an issue of the relationship between Obama and Rezko, and Hillary Clinton referred to him in a debate last week as a slumlord.
Kennedy's endorsement dismayed and angered many Clinton supporters, who had hoped he would remain neutral. Adding to the awkwardness, Clinton appeared yesterday in Massachusetts, where the political establishment is split between the former first lady and Obama. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is a Clinton supporter, along with two popular members of Congress, Reps. Jim McGovern and Barney Frank. Gov. Deval L. Patrick, and now both U.S. senators, are supporters of Obama.
Clinton also campaigned in Connecticut, where Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I) has endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) has remained neutral after dropping out of the race.
The endorsement seemed to underscore the tensions the presidential campaign has caused in the Democratic Party establishment, especially in the Senate, where 11 members publicly back Clinton, and eight now support Obama.
That tension was on display late yesterday afternoon, when Obama and Clinton returned to the Senate and a pair of votes brought them together in rare proximity on the floor. Obama glided from desk to desk and was greeted by his colleagues like a returning prizefighter. Standing at the back of the chamber, he joked with Sens. James Webb (Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), both uncommitted in the Democratic nomination battle.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) joined the group, and Conrad, who endorsed Obama weeks ago, took the roll. "Obama, Obama, Obama," Conrad said, to himself, McCaskill and the Illinois senator.
"We're for Obama," he said, looking at Tester and Webb. "What about you?"
McCaskill will campaign tomorrow in Missouri with Obama, and before walking away she told him "Get some sleep." Clinton remained out of view, having stepped into the cloakroom during the first vote. There she ran into Kennedy, and the two exchanged greetings, according to people familiar with the conversation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) refused to offer any observations about Kennedy's endorsement. "I'm staying out of the race between Obama and Clinton," Reid said. But others appeared to be wavering. "I'll be letting you know in the next couple of days," said Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Democratic leadership, whose home state of Washington will hold its Democratic caucuses Feb. 9.
Several senators from highly contested states said they were reluctant to weigh in because their states are likely to be key battlegrounds in the general election. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D), whose father, the late Pennsylvania governor, had a bitter feud with Bill Clinton in the 1990s over abortion politics, said he became close to Clinton and Obama when they stumped for him in 2006, leading him to stay on the sidelines in the endorsement game.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), whose home state played an important role in the 2004 general election, said he may yet make an endorsement before the March primary, but he wants to hear more from Hillary Clinton and Obama on free trade and jobs.
In the House, Clinton has secured 72 endorsements; Obama has 44, and Edwards has 15. That leaves 100 or so Democratic House members who have yet to choose sides.