By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., May 14 -- Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards gave his long-sought endorsement to Sen. Barack Obama on Wednesday night, calling on Democrats to unite behind him and turn their attention to the fall campaign.
"The reason I am here tonight," Edwards declared, "is the voters have made their choice, and so have I."
Edwards had been heavily courted by Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton since he quit the race three months ago. His decision to climb off the fence with just five contests remaining is likely to yield limited benefits, but it sends a strong signal that Edwards, at least, thinks the nomination battle is over.
Appearing with Obama at a rally here, the former senator from North Carolina and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee gave what sounded in places like a eulogy for Clinton's candidacy, praising her tenacity and describing her as "made of steel." But he emphasized that the party must now get behind Obama.
"When this nomination battle is over, and it will be over soon, brothers and sisters," he said, "we must come together as Democrats and in the fall stand up for what matters in America and make America what it needs to be."
Friends said Edwards told Obama of his decision on Tuesday night, as Clinton was thumping Obama by 41 points in the West Virginia primary and winning the overwhelming support of working-class white voters at the heart of Edwards's candidacy. Still on the ballot, Edwards received 7 percent of the vote there.
Obama was in Michigan in an effort to connect with such voters, who are considered essential to his chances against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. A majority of West Virginia voters said Obama does not share their values.
Clinton, who has vowed to continue her fight through the final June 3 primaries, in Montana and South Dakota, struck a more conciliatory tone during a round of interviews following her victory in West Virginia.
Those who voted for either her or Obama, she said, have far more in common with the other Democrat than they do with McCain. "I'm going to work my heart out for whoever our nominee is," Clinton told CNN. "Obviously, I'm still hoping to be that nominee, but I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that anyone who supported me . . . understands what a grave error it would be not to vote for Senator Obama."
When word of the Edwards endorsement leaked out, however, Clinton campaign manager Terence R. McAuliffe sounded a very different note. "We respect John Edwards," he said in a statement issued by the campaign, "but as the voters of West Virginia showed last night, this thing is far from over."
Electoral math suggested otherwise, and Obama picked up 4.5 more superdelegates on Wednesday. With an insurmountable lead among pledged delegates and a growing edge among the appointed delegates, Obama has made Clinton's path to the nomination nearly invisible.
Obama picked up the endorsement of a leading abortion rights group that is part of a key party constituency. The endorsement by the political action committee of NARAL Pro-Choice America provoked an outcry on NARAL's blog and a statement of displeasure with the organization's timing from the president of the Democratic women's political action committee Emily's List, which supports Clinton. Clinton said she was disappointed by the news.
Edwards had been deeply conflicted about choosing between his former rivals. Friends said that he had spoken regularly with Obama, but that the agreement did not come together until a call Obama placed to him on Tuesday night.
Edwards appeared more in tune with Obama and his message of change during the early primaries, and he was more often critical of Clinton, whom he considered too closely aligned with interest group politics and the established ways of Washington.
At the same time, friends said, Edwards thought Clinton was more ready to be president, and he needed time to reconcile his reservations about Obama.
Edwards is the third of Obama's former rivals to endorse him, following Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who said his loyalty to the Clintons was trumped by his belief in Obama.
To achieve maximum media impact, Obama moved up a scheduled rally in Grand Rapids to ensure the Edwards appearance made the evening news. The candidate took the stage to thunderous cheers and told the crowd of 12,500 that he would be joined by "one of the greatest leaders we have in the Democratic Party. Please give it up for my friend John Edwards."
After Edwards spoke, Obama paid homage to themes Edwards cared about, particularly the goal of stitching together what Edwards calls the two Americas.
"John Edwards," Obama said, "ran a campaign that made us all focus on what matters."
The candidate also praised Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, who was reportedly less enthusiastic about Obama, for "her courage and her resilience, her unyielding passion and commitment."
In an interview last week, Edwards strongly suggested that he was leaning toward Obama, in part because he had adopted Edwards's signature issue of poverty. Edwards praised both candidates for caring about Americans who are struggling.
"I think they're both very strong on the issue. . . . and Senator Clinton has been working on this for decades, and particularly focused on children," he said. But poverty issues, he added, have been "central to Senator Obama's life."
Obama spent Wednesday morning trying to shore up support among industrial workers and union members who have sometimes proved skeptical. He talked about the troubled American economy and vowed to lead a resurgence.
"Our job has to be to fight to make the economy fair again. I think that is going to be the central issue in this election: Who can restore a sense of fairness and economic growth for everybody -- bottom-up economic growth, instead of trickle-down nonsense," he told supporters after touring a Chrysler plant.
In Macomb County, long associated with "Reagan Democrats" who left their party in the 1980s to vote for a Republican whose values they shared, Obama recalled McCain's widely reported comment in January that many Michigan manufacturing jobs are gone forever.
"He was right," Obama said. "We can't bring back every single job. But where he was wrong was in suggesting that there's nothing we can do to replace those jobs or create new ones. Where he was wrong was not offering policies and new solutions than what George Bush has been offering over the last 7 1/2 years. That's essentially giving up. That's not what this country is all about."
Obama, who is counting on increased support from labor unions, expressed solidarity Wednesday with striking workers at nearby American Axle and criticized the Bush administration as being anti-labor. Aides made sure that members of the Teamsters, United Food Workers and garment workers unions were on stage behind him.
Obama told reporters on his Chicago-bound campaign plane that Edwards can be "extremely helpful to us campaigning in every demographic," but he noted that he has particular credibility on "issues of poverty and the plight of working people."
"Hopefully his endorsement will help some of those supporters who haven't already joined my campaign take a look at my campaign," Obama said. "We'll take any help that he can give us."
Staff writers Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut in Washington contributed to this report.