New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose presidential bid never picked up enough steam, backed Sen. Barack Obama for president yesterday, handing the Illinois senator what could be an important endorsement in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Richardson, the nation's only Hispanic governor, told a rally in Portland, Ore., that Obama was an extraordinary leader who appeals to the best in Americans.
"You are a once-in-a-lifetime leader," Richardson said. "Above all, you will be a president who brings this nation together."
The pair seemed very comfortable together, likely to increase speculation that Richardson would be a suitable vice presidential candidate. Amid their mutual praise, they joked with each other about a past debate appearance and bantered with the crowd.
Mentioning Obama's speech this week on race relations, Richardson praised Obama, who is seeking to become the first African-American elected to the White House, for "rejecting the politics of race against race."
"As a Hispanic American, I was particularly touched [by Obama's comments]," Richardson told the cheering crowd.
Obama "didn't evade the tough issue to soothe us with half-truths," Richardson said.
The endorsement is important because Richardson's backing could help Obama with a key constituency - Hispanics - that has supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Clinton won the New Mexico caucus in early February with a nearly 2-to-1 advantage among Hispanics, according to exit polls. She also ran strongly among Hispanics in Texas and California.
Richardson backed Obama despite his history with Clinton and her husband, the former president. Richardson served as ambassador to the United Nations and as secretary of energy during Bill Clinton's presidency.
The Richardson endorsement was eagerly sought by both the Clinton and Obama camps. In a photograph that appeared in most newspapers, Richardson and Bill Clinton watched the Super Bowl together.
Richardson's endorsement also comes at an opportune time for Obama, who has given three major speeches in the past week. He discussed race relations in the wake of charges that his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has used incendiary and anti-American language in his sermons.
It was the speech on race that Richardson praised yesterday.
"He could have just waited for the controversy over the deplorable remarks of Reverend Wright to subside, as it surely would have. Instead, Senator Obama showed us once again what kind of leader he is.
"He spoke to us as adults. He asked us to ponder the weight of our racially divided past, to rise above it, and to seize the opportunity to carry forward the work of many patriots of all races who struggled and died to bring us together.
"Senator Obama reminded us that cynicism is not realism, and that hope is not folly. ... He appealed to the best in us," Richardson said.
Obama has focused on Iraq and the economy, issues the campaign hopes will separate him from Clinton and from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee. But recent national polls have shown Obama losing ground to Clinton, even though he continues to have a lead of about 120 delegates.
Richardson praised Clinton as a "distinguished leader with vast experience."
He insisted that Obama "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."
The Clinton campaign tried to minimize the influence of the endorsement. In a conference call, strategist Mark Penn told reporters that he didn't think it was a "significant endorsement."
Michael Muskal writes for the Los Angeles Times.