WASHINGTON — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president on Friday, saying he was deeply moved by Obama's speech this week on race in America and that he's confident that the first-term Illinois senator is prepared on foreign policy and national defense.
Joining Obama at a campaign rally in Oregon, Richardson, who dropped his own presidential bid earlier this year, said he was "particularly touched" by Obama's words about tensions between blacks and whites because, as a Hispanic, he worries about the demonization of another minority class: immigrants.
"Hate crimes against Hispanics are rising as a direct result, and now, in tough economic times, people look for scapegoats, and I fear that people will continue to exploit our racial differences and place blame on others not like them," he said.
The "real culprit" is President Bush's economic policies, Richardson said, adding that Obama "understands that a house divided against itself cannot stand."
Richardson, who served as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, touched on his decision not to endorse Obama's Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. He said that his affection and admiration for the Clintons "will never waver," but that "it is now time for a new generation of leadership to lead America forward."
He also said that it's time for Democrats to rally behind one candidate and prepare for the general election against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The endorsement had been coveted by both Obama and the Clintons for months.
Because of his ability to reach the Hispanic vote as well as his stature as a Western governor with foreign-policy experience, Richardson was seen as a particularly desirable endorsement. Bill Clinton even made a special trip to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl with his old friend in hopes that Richardson would support his wife.
Richardson's endorsement came later than Obama might have hoped — too late to help him in heavily Latino Western states where Clinton has won primaries this year, including California and Texas.
"Perhaps the time when he could have been most effective is long since past," Clinton strategist Mark Penn said Friday on a conference call.
Still, Richardson's forceful and poignant support Friday was welcome news for the Obama camp, coming after the repeated airing of videos of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., delivering controversial sermons on race in America.
The Wright controversy prompted Obama to deliver the race speech on Tuesday. In it, he repudiated Wright's most controversial remarks but tried to place them in the context of slavery, the civil rights movement and modern-day economic woes.
Polling suggest that Wright's words have shaken support for Obama among some white voters, threatening his front-runner status.
Richardson said Friday that he came to appreciate Obama's skills and patriotism while campaigning against him. He said they also bonded over each having one foreign-born parent and having lived abroad as children. Richardson's mother was Mexican, his father American, and he grew up in Mexico. Obama's father was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas, and Obama spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia.
"In part because of these experiences, Barack and I share a deep sense of our nation's special responsibilities in the world," Richardson said.