WASHINGTON — Two Democratic congressional leaders from South Carolina endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president on Tuesday, helping spur a nationwide movement of uncommitted super-delegates toward the Illinois senator.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a high-ranking black lawmaker, tied Obama's historic White House quest to the 1960s civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.
"Over the next several weeks, our party will have an historic opportunity to transcend these (racial) issues that have plagued our nation since its founding," Clyburn said.
Clyburn said supporters of Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton must put aside their differences over the long, contentious primary process and come together to defeat Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who gained the GOP nomination in March.
Rep. John Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee, compared Obama's eloquence with that of Ronald Reagan and said "his fresh face and message" is drawing tens of thousands of new voters to the Democratic Party.
"Through a grueling campaign and rigorous debates, he won not just the points but the people, and not just their support but their hearts and minds," Spratt said. "I am astounded at the mix of people who tell me that they are supporting Obama."
The formal endorsements by Clyburn and Spratt, along with similar statements by superdelegates in other states, reduced to fewer than 40 the number of delegates Obama needs to seal the Democratic nomination as primary voters cast ballots in Montana and South Dakota.
Clyburn said Obama "has helped to draw a new map for the Democratic Party nationally" by putting into play "red states" previously ceded to Republicans.
"We have over the years - the last two (presidential) cycles, at least - run a 17-state campaign with no room for error," Clyburn said. "Senator Obama and his campaign decided to expand that map" to all 50 states.
At the same time, Clyburn said he recently advised Obama in stark terms what he should do to draw more of the white, blue-collar voters who backed Clinton in one big-state primary after another this year.
"You've got to share with voters your life story," Clyburn said he told Obama. "You've not talked about those things that you had to overcome to get to where you are."
Clyburn said he had extensive talks over the weekend with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he predicted that a number of those who have supported Sen. Hillary Clinton will now switch to Obama - including four from her home state of New York.
Spratt said he couldn't ignore Obama's huge victory over Clinton in South Carolina's Jan. 26 Democratic primary, when Obama carried 44 of the state's 46 counties.
"Senator Obama, in seeking the nomination, has shown that he is highly capable, clearly competent and equal to the challenge," Spratt said.
In a dig at the Clintons' political machine, Spratt said Obama had bested them "by organizing a national campaign that has trumped his senior, more experienced colleagues."
Spratt ticked off a broad range of people who had told him they were backing Obama: a retired banker; the formerly Republican wife of his nephew; a judge who'd held office as a Republican.
"In the end, it's eloquence that sets Senator Obama apart, and we saw the difference it can make when President Reagan came to office," Spratt said. "In the case of Senator Obama, it is not just rhetorical flourish, but the clarity and insight behind it."
Clyburn, 67, had been expected to endorse Obama. He has sharply criticized the Clintons, and his daughter works for the Obama campaign.
"I believe the time has come for all unpledged delegates to make their choices known, and I believe our best choice against a George Bush third term is Senator Barack Obama," he said.
Clyburn noted that Obama will accept the Democratic nomination in Denver at the party's national convention in August on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" address in Washington.
Clyburn cited a recent Zogby poll showing Obama ahead of McCain in every age group except for voters over 65.
"I admit I am over 65, but my support for Senator Obama is a vote for our children's and grandchildren's future," Clyburn said.