John Kerry, the Democratic Party's 2004 standard-bearer, endorsed Barack Obama for president today, dashing the hopes of onetime running mate John Edwards and delivering a blow to his other Senate colleague, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who finished fourth in the Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, formally withdrew from the campaign today, calling it "an exhilarating and humbling year" and urging his supporters to "make your own independent choice" about whom to support.
Kerry, in a speech in South Carolina, countered criticism from the Clinton campaign that Obama, a one-term senator from Illinois, was too inexperienced to be president.
"We are electing judgment and character, not years on this Earth," he said, adding that Obama "brings the lessons of the neighborhood, the lessons of the Legislature and the lessons of his own life to that awesome challenge" of filling the Oval Office.
Without mentioning that Clinton had voted in the Senate to authorize the war in Iraq, Kerry added that Obama, an opponent of the authorization, was "right about the war in Iraq from the beginning."
Quoting civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that "the time is always right to do what is right," Kerry added, "I'm here in South Carolina because this is the right time to share with you, to make sure that we know that I have the confidence and that Barack Obama can be, will be and should be the next president of the United States."
Edwards, who was Kerry's running mate in the election they lost to the Bush-Cheney ticket, issued a diplomatically worded statement in response.
"Our country and our party are stronger because of John's service, and I respect his decision," Edwards said. "When we were running against each other and on the same ticket, John and I agreed on many issues."
But Kerry may recall that Edwards won the South Carolina primary in 2004 and that the two clashed on strategy during the general election campaign, including whether to be more aggressive in rebutting the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that disparaged Kerry's military record in the Vietnam War.
And he is said to still be smarting over criticism from Clinton over a campaign gaffe during last year's congressional elections. In a speech in California, Kerry told a group of college students that they could either work hard in school or "get stuck in Iraq." Amid a firestorm of criticism -- "inappropriate," said Clinton -- Kerry apologized for his "botched joke," meant to target President Bush, not U.S. troops.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) endorsed Obama on Wednesday, saying he "has the skills and experience that's necessary to really challenge the status quo in Washington, D.C." Miller's political alliance with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) fueled speculation today that insiders were starting to signal their comfort level with the candidate.
Clinton, fresh from a day of strategizing with aides at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., spent the day campaigning. The senator canvassed a neighborhood in Las Vegas, knocking on doors and meeting potential voters who might attend the Nevada caucuses Jan. 19. Edwards and Obama stumped in South Carolina, where Democrats hold their primary Jan. 26.
With Obama and Clinton readying for a gritty race in the run-up to Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when California, New York, Illinois and 19 other states hold their primaries, Richardson bowed out before a crowd of supporters in New Mexico.
"I gave this race the best that I had," he said, noting that his bid had raised more than $22 million, attracted 68,000 donors and affected the course of the campaign. A year ago, he said, his campaign was the most aggressive on Iraq, education and the environment, and "now all the remaining candidates have come to our point of view."
Noting that he was grilled in more than 1,000 town meetings and participated in debates with other candidates -- "it was only 24 but felt like 200" -- Richardson said, "I've learned that I don't have all the answers."
He praised his rivals -- perhaps hoping for a role in the next administration -- and urged them not to turn negative on one another, saying personal attacks could throw the election to the Republicans. "Our country and our party deserve better than that," he said.
Richardson, who sought to become the nation's first Latino president, called himself the luckiest of men.
"I married my high school sweetheart," he said of his wife, Barbara. "I live in a place called the Land of Enchantment," he said of New Mexico. "I have the best job in the world," he said of his governorship. "And I just got to run for president of the United States. It doesn't get any better than that."
Edwards issued a statement immediately after Richardson's withdrawal, concluding that without the New Mexico governor, the campaign has become a three-way race.
"What it means is here in South Carolina we're going to have three candidates who are running really vigorous campaigns for the voters to choose from," he said, apparently without including Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who remains in the race.
"I think this thing is going to go on for a long time. I assume the other two are. I know I am -- I'm in it for the long haul."