By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
HARTFORD, Conn., Feb. 4 -- The arc of Sen. Barack Obama's rise has passed through three distinct phases: Iowa. South Carolina. Kennedy.
"The Kennedy endorsement was a 12 on a scale of one to 10," said former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), an Obama supporter who courted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) for months. "It will be written as one of the biggest turning points in the campaign."
Whether Daschle's prediction proves true, the embrace of Obama by the Kennedy family, headlined by Sen. Kennedy's official announcement last Monday, helped fuel the presidential campaign of the senator from Illinois in the days leading up to Super Tuesday. It gave him the benefit of an extensive political network and the star power of the three most prominent Kennedy women -- Caroline Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy and Maria Shriver -- and allowed him to not so implicitly associate himself with gauzy memories of the New Frontier.
"Obamalot" went on the road Monday, with the candidate joining the Senate's most prominent liberal and the daughter of John F. Kennedy for a final Northeast lap before 22 states hold Democratic contests on Tuesday. The two sat on stools on a stage in the heart of Kennedy Country, beaming proudly as Obama heaped praise on his new benefactors.
He called Edward Kennedy "a man who, when the annals of American history are written, will be regarded as one of the finest senators and the finest public servants." Caroline Kennedy, he added, is "as wonderful and funny and charming as you would expect." With every line, the crowd roared.
Kennedy himself has focused most of his efforts over the past week on courting Hispanics, who polls show tend to favor Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. In private meetings with Hispanic leaders, on radio programs and with editorial board members, Kennedy has emphasized Obama's pro-immigration track record. On Friday, Obama was endorsed by La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in California, and one of the names on Kennedy's call list.
His first foray into campaigning last week was in New Mexico, a Super Tuesday state that has the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country. Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who dropped out of the race, counts Kennedy as a mentor and credits a campaign visit in 1982 as one of the reasons he won a House seat that year. "Look, the Hispanic community, especially the baby boomers, have a great deal of respect, of affection, for the Kennedys," he said.
Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, first stopped at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, then drove an hour north to Santa Fe Community College. About 250 people showed up at the cultural center, and the applause grew so loud when Kennedy entered that the alarm went off. "This is a really big deal, Kennedy campaigning for Obama," said John Roybal, 59, of Albuquerque. "The Kennedy torch, the Camelot mystique, is being passed on -- and to a minority, no less."
Added Michael Casaus, 35, an environmental organizer: "Sure, we Hispanics, we remember how good it was during the Clinton years. But we're not voting about the past. We're voting about the future. And Obama's the future. Senator Kennedy realizes that."
Kennedy plays down the impact of his support of Obama. "It's for others to measure," he said in an interview as he waited to meet Obama on Monday morning at the Newark airport.
Kennedy said his goal is "to give the opportunity for sort of a second look at Barack Obama." Democrats, he said, "don't have a lot of time to get focused on candidates, to study their records, to find out more about them. They want to do this, but they haven't had the time. We perhaps were able to give them some insight."
The value of endorsements is debatable, and in some cases the support can backfire. But the cultivation of prominent elected officials has been a focus of the Obama campaign, a way to pierce Clinton's aura of inevitability while building an army of surrogates who can vouch for Obama with voters who may not know him well.
Clinton also has ample endorsements -- and far more support from congressional Democrats -- but most of these lawmakers signed up months ago, to little fanfare. Obama, by contrast, rolled out some of his biggest names after his New Hampshire loss. Backers such as Govs. Janet Napolitano (Ariz.) and Kathleen Sebelius (Kan.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) also have taken on prominent roles, including appearing in ads in their home states.
"I think people are thirsty, not just for my endorsement, but for others. I think people really wanted to know," Kennedy said.
At 75, Kennedy is a tireless campaigner, and as he skipped around the country over the past week, he appeared younger and more gleeful. At a rally Monday morning at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, he pumped his fists into the air. "Hello, New Jersey! Are you glad to see me?" he shouted over the cheering crowd.
"Just remember this: February 5th is the date. New Jersey is the state. Barack Obama is the candidate," Kennedy exclaimed, his voice cracking from overuse. But at the end of the rally he was back in action, leading the crowd in the Obama campaign cheer "Fired up, ready to go!"
The backdrop to the Kennedy endorsement was the contentious campaign environment in South Carolina, when many Democrats grew wary about statements the Clinton team made about Obama that could be construed as carrying racial overtones. Kennedy followed the developments closely but said he had been drifting to Obama's side since he watched the senator's victory speech in Iowa after the caucuses there.
"I was waiting for the candidate who inspired me," Kennedy said. "And Barack, he was the one."
A week after Kennedy endorsed him at American University, Obama teased his fellow senator as though they were old friends. "This campaign is about bringing people together," he said. "For me to be able to bring a Patriots fan to the Meadowlands, the day after the Super Bowl, is like bringing the lion and the lamb together. We can bridge all gaps, and all divisions together in this country."
Staff writer Jos¿ Antonio Vargas in New Mexico contributed to this report.