Barack Obama advanced his drive to unite the Democratic Party behind his candidacy for president Wednesday by winning the long-sought endorsement of vanquished rival John Edwards at a boisterous rally.
The announcement was a blow to Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose bid for the Democratic nomination appears all but lost, and brought Obama a welcome distraction from his landslide defeat Tuesday in the West Virginia primary.
The 41-percentage-point rout sparked new questions about his persistent troubles appealing to white, blue-collar voters, even if it did little to boost Clinton’s prospects. In Edwards, Obama picked up the support of a former presidential candidate who had emphasized his roots as the son of a mill worker and aimed his pitch at working-class voters.
“The Democratic voters in America have made their choice, and so have I,” Edwards told the enthusiastic crowd. “There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership. There is one man that knows how to create the change, the lasting change, that you have to build from the ground up. There is one man who knows in his heart that it is time to create one America, not two. And that man is Barack Obama.”
In another sign of Obama’s progress in uniting the party, the Illinois senator also won the endorsement Wednesday of a major abortion rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America. The group praised Clinton, but its rejection of her was stinging nonetheless for the New York senator, who is seeking to become the nation’s first female president.
Even though Clinton vowed Wednesday to fight to the last contests on June 3 in Montana and South Dakota, Obama’s rally with Edwards appeared choreographed to ease her exit.
Speaking to 12,500 Obama supporters here in a sports arena, Edwards, one of the most prominent Democrats who had not endorsed a candidate, paid lengthy tribute to Clinton. The mention of her name initially sparked boos, a sign of the fractured state of the party as the nominating race winds down.
“It is hard to go out there and speak up when the odds turn against you,” Edwards said, adding that Clinton had “shown strength and character” in battling for improved healthcare and a better life for millions of Americans.
“She is a woman who, in my judgment, is made of steel, and she’s a leader in this country, not -- not -- because of her husband, but because of what she has done,” he said.
Obama, too, offered kind words for Clinton as he ripped into President Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican White House nominee. Both Republicans, Obama said, champion tax cuts for “those with the most, and tell everyone else to fend for themselves.”
“John Edwards and I believe in a different America,” Obama said, borrowing an Edwards campaign theme. “Hillary Clinton believes in a different America. The Democratic Party believes in a different America -- one America, where we rise and fall together as one people, and that’s why we are going to take Washington by storm this November.”
“Yes, we can!” the crowd shouted.
Obama also pledged to take up Edwards’ campaign to cut poverty in half over the next 10 years. “He will have a partner in that effort,” Obama said, “because that is a goal that I will set as president of the United States of America.”
A former North Carolina senator and his party’s 2004 nominee for vice president, Edwards dropped out of the race in January after poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Clinton and Obama competed fiercely for his endorsement, each visiting his home in Chapel Hill. For more than three months, Edwards declined to take sides, indicating recently that he would let voters decide. He did not explain why he changed his mind, but Obama told reporters Wednesday that Edwards had made his decision in the last several days.
Now, some of the 19 delegates whom Edwards won in the early contests could swing toward Obama. His endorsement could also sway some superdelegates, the party leaders who probably will settle the nomination. In the race for delegates, Obama leads 1,887.5 to 1,718, according to the Associated Press. It takes 2,026 to win the nomination.
Clinton campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe said her team respected Edwards, “but as the voters of West Virginia showed last night, this thing is far from over.”
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds was caustic. “Despite months of lofty claims,” he said, “Barack Obama’s best effort at uniting his party relied on the same divisive partisan attacks that only reminds Americans that he’s a candidate with no record of bipartisan success.”
The Grand Rapids event capped a daylong Obama swing across Michigan, part of a tour of fall battleground states that he launched on Tuesday in Missouri and will resume next week in Florida.
Obama has tried to strike a balance between jumping ahead to the general-election race without seeming presumptuous about the nomination he has yet to capture. He plans to campaign this week in South Dakota and Oregon, which holds its primary Tuesday.
In the Detroit suburbs on Wednesday morning, Obama set out to build ties with the Midwestern blue-collar workers whose support has eluded him in primaries and caucuses. Wearing goggles and earplugs, he toured the assembly lines of a Chrysler factory in Sterling Heights. He also sported a flag pin on his lapel, an apparent gesture to quiet conservative critics who have questioned his patriotism because he often doesn’t wear a pin.
In the nearby suburb of Warren, Obama sharply attacked McCain’s economic agenda at Macomb County Community College. Faulting McCain for advocating extensions of Bush’s tax cuts, Obama told invited guests that he and the Arizona senator would offer Americans a stark choice in November.
“It’s going to be a clear choice between four more years of the same failed Bush policies that have wrecked Michigan’s economy, or real change that allows us to write a new chapter in American manufacturing and the American economy and American history,” he said.
Obama called for public investment in alternative energy production to help revive the manufacturing sector in Michigan and other economically pressed states.
Obama also said that McCain’s plans to remedy economic troubles closely resembled Bush’s. “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 that doesn’t end up working for the American people,” he said.