WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and a leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, switched his support on Wednesday from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama for his party’s presidential nomination.
In the latest campaign setback for Clinton just days before crucial Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas, Lewis said that his constituents back Obama, an Illinois senator, and that it was his “duty ... to express the will of the people.”
Clinton had hoped that Lewis, who was severely beaten during civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, would help her win the support of black voters. If he wins the White House in November, Obama would be the first black U.S. president.
Previously, Lewis said he was supporting Clinton, a New York senator, for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Something is happening in America,” Lewis said in a statement explaining his shift. “The people are pressing for a new day in American politics and I think they see Sen. Barack Obama as a symbol of that change.”
Obama, campaigning in Ohio, said in a statement: “John Lewis is an American hero and a giant of the Civil Rights Movement, and I am deeply honored to have his support.”
Asked about the switch, Clinton said she respected Lewis and understood that he has been under tremendous pressure.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about who is supporting us, it’s about what we are presenting and what our experience and qualifications are, and I think that is something voters are going to decide,” she said in a satellite interview with Houston television station KTRK.
Clinton has lost a string of state nominating contests to Obama since February 5, as well as some key endorsements from organized labor. She also has had to borrow money from her private accounts to keep the campaign running.
In the meantime, Clinton has been trying to tamp down questions about dropping out of the race if she does not score resounding victories on March 4 in Texas and Ohio, two large states.
Lewis, saying his decision was a difficult one, said he has a “deep and abiding love for both Sen. Clinton and President (Bill) Clinton.”
Reporting by Richard Cowan, editing by David Alexander and Stuart Grudgings