WASHINGTON — Former Sen. John Edwards Wednesday endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination for president, throwing his stature as a populist champion of the working class behind a onetime rival whose failure to appeal to such voters has been his chief political weakness through the late primary season.
"The Democratic voters in America have made their choice and so have I," Edwards told an estimated 12,500 cheering Obama supporters at a rally for their candidate in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Edwards' decision comes too late to affect crucial primaries, and too late for Edwards to get much credit for being an Obama loyalist. But it's nevertheless a blow to Sen. Hillary Clinton, who'd courted the former North Carolina senator heavily since he dropped his presidential bid on Jan. 30 and was hoping to relish her big win Tuesday in West Virginia a little longer.
Edwards' endorsement came hours after abortion-rights group NARAL deserted Clinton after years of support to endorse Obama. The joint endorsements suggest that despite Clinton's big victory Tuesday and her determination to keep fighting for the nomination, important parts of the Democratic Party are jumping aboard the Obama bandwagon before they're left behind.
Clinton vowed to stay in the race. "We respect John Edwards," her campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said. "But as the voters of West Virginia showed last night, this is far from over."
The Clinton campaign was caught unawares by the NARAL endorsement, which became public as Clinton advisers were holding a conference call with reporters. Asked by a reporter on the call for his response, Clinton's communications director Howard Wolfson said, “'Surprised’ would be my response” and that Clinton's leadership and advocacy on abortion rights had been "second to none."
The endorsement drew angry reaction from Clinton supporters, including Ellen R. Malcolm, the president of Emily's List — a group that raises money to support feminist candidates. Recalling Clinton's long support for pro-choice issues, Malcolm decried NARAL's move as "tremendously disrespectful to Sen. Clinton . . . to not give her the courtesy to finish the final three weeks of the primary process."
"It certainly must be disconcerting for elected leaders who stand up for reproductive rights and expect the choice community will stand with them,” Malcolm said. Two dozen women members of Congress hastily called an evening news conference "to discuss Hillary Clinton's strong pro-choice record."
Explaining her group's backing of Obama, Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement that she believes Obama is now certain to secure the nomination and that his differences with McCain on abortion rights and the selection of judicial nominees "will be a major reason many voters, especially pro-choice independent and Republican women, will cross party lines to support Sen. Obama in the fall."
Only five primaries remain between now and the last one on June 3. Edwards had controlled 19 pledged delegates, who're now free to vote for whomever they please. To win the nomination takes 2,025 delegates, and Obama is closing in on a majority.
Sounding as interested in a spot on the ticket as he did in 2004 when he became John Kerry's running mate, Edwards repeated his own campaign theme of "one America" and a desire to end poverty, curb the power of Washington lobbyists, create universal health care and restore the nation's reputation globally. He said that Obama could achieve those goals as a man of "bold leadership."
Edwards also praised Hillary Clinton as "made of steel," and praised the former first lady as "a leader in this country not because of her husband but because of what she has done." He said that her battles for her beliefs had made Obama a stronger candidate for the fall campaign.
Political scientists said Edwards' timing had some advantage for both Obama and Edwards, if he's angling for vice president.
"It's a story that tackles the biggest problem Obama faces," said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, speaking of Obama's trouble attracting working-class white voters, who like Edwards as well as Clinton.
"And it's a nice reminder for the Obama team of what Edwards might bring to the ticket. Obama needs to get these voters. There's a real fear that (presumptive Republican nominee John) McCain could pick up Democratic voters in states like Ohio and Florida, white working-class voters that are not enthused about Barack Obama either for racial reasons, elite reasons, whatever."
Still, Zelizer said, Edwards' delay feeds a perception that he's a self-serving phony.
"The timing of his endorsement is classic Edwards," Zelizer said. "One of Edwards' greatest problems is that he doesn't seem authentic. He made his whole campaign about populism, but I think a lot of people see him as a traditional senator who'll say whatever it takes to win and who cares about his hair. He comes out after the race is basically over. He doesn't have to take any risk; he's endorsing the winner. It's always good to get an endorsement, but if this is about a running mate, there's a lot of serious thinking the Obama campaign would have to do before they go with him."