PORTLAND – Sen. Barack Obama won the backing Friday of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation’s top Hispanic elected official, providing an image of multiracial unity following a week in which the Democratic presidential campaign has been dominated by a debate over racial division.
Richardson’s endorsement could help Obama in the remaining 10 nominating contests between now and June, especially among Latinos, while also providing a nudge for superdelegates – party leaders and elected officials – still on the fence.
A former presidential candidate who worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration, Richardson called Obama a “once in a lifetime opportunity for our nation.”
He also said it’s nearing the time for closure in the nomination fight.
“I’m not going to advise any other candidate when to get in and out,” he said. “Sen. (Hillary) Clinton, she has a right to stay in the race. But I think eventually we don’t want to go into the Democratic convention bloodied and negative.”
Richardson, a close Clinton family friend, had earlier told an audience of about 12,000 people here in Portland that it was time for Democrats to “stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will have against John McCain in the fall.”
That was one of the strongest statements yet by a top party leader that it was time to end the bickering that has dominated the race between Obama and Clinton, a former first lady and New York senator.
Richardson, who dropped his own presidential bid in January after a distant fourth-place showing in Iowa, said he decided a week ago to endorse Obama and his decision was reinforced by the Illinois Democrat’s speech on race this week.
“Barack Obama addressed the issue of race with the eloquence and sincerity and optimism we have come to expect of him,” he said.
Richardson said he called Hillary Clinton on Thursday evening to deliver his news. “Let me say, we’ve had better conversations,” he said.
The endorsement is a boost for Obama, who himself described the last couple of weeks as “turbulent,” following losses in Texas and Ohio primaries and controversy over remarks made by his longtime Chicago pastor.
Richardson is the 62nd superdelegate Obama has won since early February.
Aggressively courted by both Obama and Clinton, Bill Clinton even traveled to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl with Richardson.
“I was torn, legitimately, between two very strong, good candidates,” Richardson said. “I decided on this endorsement because I think he’s something special that the country needs right now, somebody who can bring the country together.”
Richardson said he had seen Obama “up close” in the presidential campaign, including at a time where he was helped by his opponent during an Iowa debate where Richardson had not been paying attention to a question asked.
“I’ve seen his humanity. I’ve seen his intellect,” he said. “He can serve as commander in chief. He’s got great judgment. That’s what you need in foreign policy.”