By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008
PORTLAND, Ore., March 21 -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered a strong endorsement of Barack Obama for president Friday, appealing for peace in the Democratic Party and hailing the Illinois senator as a unifying force for the country.
"Your candidacy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our country, and you are a once-in-a-lifetime leader," said Richardson, the nation's only Hispanic governor, before a cheering crowd of about 12,000 in Portland's Memorial Coliseum. "You will make every American proud to be an American."
Both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had assiduously courted Richardson since he dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in January. Richardson said he decided last week but was not able to schedule an appearance with Obama before Friday. His belief that he made the right decision was underscored, he said, by Obama's speech on race relations Tuesday, an address that renewed the candidate's appeals for unity.
While the timing of the endorsement may not have been optimal for Obama -- he narrowly lost an early March primary in Texas in large part because Clinton ran strongly among Hispanics -- it is an important boost at a stage when the two campaigns have been mired in a cycle of accusation and counter-accusation and the nominating process appears destined to last well into the summer.
"I'm not advocating an end to the campaign tomorrow, but eventually we Democrats need to come together and unite around a candidate," Richardson said, adding that the campaigns had "gotten too negative."
Richardson spoke with Clinton late Thursday -- "We've had better conversations," he joked -- and he praised her Friday as a candidate and a leader. He also hailed the achievements of President Bill Clinton's administration, in which he served as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary.
But, Richardson added, "It is time for Democrats to stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we have against John McCain," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
The endorsement is not likely to end the sniping anytime soon. Indeed, Clinton campaign advisers dismissed its significance even though efforts to win over Richardson included the former president watching the Super Bowl with Richardson in New Mexico.
"You know, look, I think everyone has their endorsers," chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn said. Given that New Mexico has already voted for Clinton, "perhaps the time when he could have been most effective has long since passed," Penn said.
On a day when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe accused Clinton of being too dishonest and untrustworthy to win the White House, Richardson's nod only became new fuel for the sniping, as Clinton aides insisted it would do little to help Obama overcome his recent problems.
Even Obama said that "there's no doubt that we've had a turbulent couple of weeks" Friday as he continued to struggle to put the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. controversy behind him.
Obama said he was not straying from his previous stance when he admitted Tuesday that he had been present in the pews when Wright had uttered is controversial remarks. In his most specific explanation yet, Obama said he had been present during Wright's condemnations of U.S. foreign and domestic policies. But he said he was unaware that Wright had called HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, a U.S. government plot to wipe out African Americans -- a charge Obama called "out of line and off the wall." Nor, he said, was he aware that Wright, who brought Obama to his Christian faith, married him to his wife and baptized his children, had declared, "God damn America" until such sermons became fodder for the blogs and cable television in recent days.
Obama leaned heavily on Richardson to move the campaign's theme back to national unity and reconciliation.
"I made my endorsement because I believe this man is the best person to be president and because he brings so much hope and opportunity and unity to this country," Richardson said.
By the campaign's count, Richardson's nod made him the 62nd superdelegate to endorse Obama since Feb. 5, to two for Clinton -- although Clinton still holds the lead among party insiders. On the stage in Portland, Richardson hailed the senator's speech on race for its "eloquence, sincerity and optimism."
"Senator Obama could have given a safer speech. He is, after all, well ahead in the delegate count for our party's nomination. He could have just waited for the controversy over the deplorable remarks of Reverend Wright to subside, as it surely would have," Richardson said. "Instead, Senator Obama showed us once again what kind of leader he is. He spoke to us as adults."
Richardson, like Obama, is the child of a foreign-born parent, and he hailed the Illinois senator's "steadfast patriotism," hitting back at conservative whisper campaigns questioning Obama's commitment to the country.
Before Friday, Richardson had been a fierce defender of the Clintons; at times, his own campaign for president appeared to be in part aimed at a post, perhaps the vice presidency, in a Hillary Clinton White House.
"Before concluding my remarks, I would like to say that we are blessed to have two great American leaders and great Democrats running for president," Richardson said. "My great affection and admiration for Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver."
But he made an appeal to the Democratic Party insiders who will ultimately decide the nominee.
"The 1990s were a decade of peace and prosperity because of the competent and enlightened leadership of the Clinton administration," he said, "but it is now time for a new generation of leadership to lead America forward."
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.