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Ted Kennedy endorses Obama, citing his 'extraordinary gifts'

Declaring that "it is time for a new generation of leadership" in America, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president Monday, wrapping the young politician in the mantle of America's best-known political dynasty.

He was joined in a cavernous gymnasium at American University here by his niece Caroline and his son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, both of whom also threw their support behind the youthful Illinois senator. They likened Obama to their best-loved relative, President Kennedy.

"With every person he meets, every crowd he inspires, and everyone he touches," Sen. Kennedy said, Obama "generates new hope that our greatest days as a nation are still ahead, and this generation of Americans, like others before us, can unite to meet our own rendezvous with destiny."

Kennedy praised the other two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, calling New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards "my friends" and lauding their service in the Senate and on the campaign trail.

But, ultimately, he said, he chose to throw his considerable political weight behind the candidate who most inspired him, a man "who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history."

Friends or no, the gray eminence of American liberalism also chastised the Clintons for their campaign behavior and issued a stern warning to the other famous Democratic family:

"We know the true record of Barack Obama," Kennedy said in a 20-minute address interrupted by cheers. "There is the courage he showed when so many others were silent or simply went along. From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth."

Obama was not in the Senate when Hillary Clinton voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, but he has spoken out against the war since 2002. Hillary and Bill Clinton have both argued in recent days that Obama equivocated in his opposition by voting to support war funding once he arrived in Washington.

Kennedy worked for Sen. John F. Kerry in the 2004 Democratic primary and helped bring much-needed life and attention to the candidate's efforts. He is expected to head west at the end of the week, reaching out to Latinos and labor groups in critical Feb. 5 states California, Arizona and New Mexico.

His endorsement does more than associate Obama with the Kennedy family mystique; it also was an effort to answer criticism that the first-term senator is lacking in experience.

Kennedy praised Obama's hard work and "effectiveness" as a legislator, stealing a line from Clinton in the process: "I know that he's ready to be president on Day One."

But the Kennedy family is not united behind Obama. Three of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's children -- former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and human rights activist Kerry Kennedy -- expressed support for Clinton in an opinion article in today's Times.

"Like our father," they wrote, "Hillary has devoted her life to embracing and including those on the bottom rung of society's ladder."

They described Clinton as the most qualified to address the party's most pressing concerns -- among them civil liberties, universal healthcare and protection of the environment. "The loftiest poetry will not solve these issues. We need a president willing to engage in a fistfight to safeguard and restore our national virtues," they wrote, adding that "inspirational leadership comes in many forms."

"We need a leader who is battle-tested, resilient, and surefooted on the shifting landscapes of domestic and foreign policy. Hillary Clinton will move our country forward while promoting its noblest ideals," the three Kennedys write.

The Massachusetts senator wasn't the only endorsement disappointment for the Clinton campaign Monday. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison -- a longtime friend and supporter of the 42nd president -- threw her support behind Obama too.

Morrison famously described Bill Clinton as America's "first black president." On Monday, she expressed admiration for Hillary Clinton's exhaustive knowledge and political acumen.

But in an eloquent letter released by Obama's campaign, she praised his "creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom."

While "there have been a few prescient leaders in our past," she wrote to Obama, "you are the man for this time."

Obama and Clinton attended the State of the Union address Monday night; Clinton cut short a New England campaign day to return to the Capitol, after addressing thousands of supporters in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

"I assume that all of you know that tonight is a red-letter night in American history," she said in Hartford, Conn. Her voice rising, she said: "It is the last time that George Bush will give a State of the Union!"

Anticipating Bush's remarks, Clinton said she was certain that "the president tonight will, as he has for the previous seven years, say that the state of the union is strong."

"But with all due respect, Mr. President, come out on the road with me," she said. "Come and meet the people that I meet. Listen to the stories that I listen to. Sit at tables in diners and hear what's on Americans' minds."

Clinton was to travel to Florida today, where she will await the results of the Democratic primary in that state. Obama had events scheduled in Kansas and Missouri.

maria.laganga@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

La Ganga reported from Washington and Nicholas from Hartford, Conn.

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