WASHINGTON — A California congressman who is co-chair of Hillary Clinton's National Hispanic Leadership Council has defected and pledged his support to Barack Obama, Clinton's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The defection came as a new poll showed that Obama would handily defeat John McCain in California in November_ and do so by a larger margin than Clinton would.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, whom Clinton named to his Hispanic leadership post in December, shortly after Cardoza announced he would support her for the nomination, announced he was switching sides on Friday.
"I believe that Senator Obama will inevitably be our party's nominee for president," Cardoza, a Democrat from Merced, in the San Joaquin Valley, said.
He was joined by another California superdelegate, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat from Fresno.
Cardoza's endorsement of Clinton occurred when she appeared to be the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, with more than twice as many superdelegate supporters as Obama. That was before Obama won the Iowa caucuses and began his drive toward front-runner status.
In more recent weeks, as Clinton's lead evaporated, Cardoza and his fellow superdelegates have been getting more pressure from Obama's camp to join the winning team.
Two weeks ago, for instance, Obama ventured to a Capitol Hill townhouse to meet with members of the Blue Dog coalition, a group of moderate-to-conservative House Democrats who generally represent swing congressional districts. Cardoza and Costa are both Blue Dogs, and by all accounts Obama made a hit.
"I continue to greatly respect and admire Senator Clinton and feel she has made history with her campaign," Cardoza said. But "we need to avoid [a] potentially divisive situation by uniting behind one nominee and bringing the party together immediately."
Cardoza characterized Obama as "thoughtful, knowledgeable and inspirational."
Superdelegates like Cardoza and Costa are free to shift their support from one candidate to another. They have more flexibility than pledged delegates, who are assigned based on public voting. The first Democratic candidate to secure 2,026 delegates will win the nomination. As of Friday, CNN credited Obama with 1,969 delegates and Clinton with 1,779.
Unlike Cardoza, Costa had held his fire until now. Costa's neutral stance drew considerable attention from both campaigns, with current and former members of Congress repeatedly calling on Costa and his chief of staff.
Some callers made the tactical point that an endorsement arriving after the nomination was formally sewn up would offer no political advantage to either side.
Last weekend, Obama and Costa talked by telephone to nail down the pending endorsement.
"I did not come to this decision without careful consideration," Costa said, adding that "it's been a long presidential primary season, and now is time to bring it to a close."
Costa, repeating an invitation he and Cardoza had issued earlier, said he was insisting that Obama campaign in the San Joaquin Valley sometime before the November general election.
Meanwhile, a poll done for the Los Angeles Times newspaper and KTLA televison shows that less than four months after losing the California primary to Clinton, Obama appears to be the stronger of the two Democrats in facing McCain in November.
Obama would defeat McCain by seven points if the election were held today, the poll found, while Clinton would eke out only a three-point victory.
McCain has insisted that he will compete to win California in the fall, but most analysts think the state is too reliably Democratic and too expensive for a Republican to mount a serious challenge there. California has gone to the Democratic candidate in each of the last four presidential elections.
The one bright spot for McCain in the poll was how he did among California's Latino voters. The poll show Latinos still prefer a Democrat — McCain would get 38 percent of the Latino vote against Obama and 41 percent against Clinton — but that's better than George W. Bush did in his two runs for the presidency.
Whether that increased support among California Hispanics would transfer to other states, such as Texas, with large Latino populations is unclear. If it did, however, it could be a problem for Obama in a tight race.