CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama picked up a major endorsement on Thursday, with the party’s 2004 nominee John Kerry announcing he would back his U.S. presidential bid.
Kerry’s endorsement was a snub to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, his vice presidential running mate in 2004, who is also running for president but is a distant third in national polls to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama.
As Kerry was offering his support to Obama, the Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president, the Democratic field of candidates decreased by one as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson dropped out of the race.
Obama and Kerry appeared at a rally in South Carolina which, along with the Western state of Nevada, has become a focal point for Democrats in their battle to pick a presidential candidate in the November election.
“Martin Luther King said that the time is always right to do what is right,” Kerry said, referring to the late civil rights leader, as he explained why he decided to back Obama.
“I have the confidence that Barack Obama can be, will be and should be the next president of the United States,” he told thousands of cheering, sign-waving Obama supporters at the College of Charleston.
Edwards, who became Kerry’s running mate four years ago after failing to win the nomination on his own, said he respected the decision but added in a statement that the election was “about the future, not the past.”
The state-by-state process to pick candidates for the November election to succeed President George W. Bush has moved out of the snowy backdrops of New Hampshire and Iowa and on to states across the country ahead of February 5 when 22 states hold nominating contests.
Republicans too were focusing on South Carolina where they were holding a debate at 9 p.m. EST Thursday in the resort city of Myrtle Beach. Republicans in the Southern state vote on January 19 and Democrats follow a week later.
Obama, who scored a victory in the Iowa caucuses last week, is hoping the January 26 contest in South Carolina will help him regain front-runner status after a narrow loss to Clinton in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
The endorsement by Kerry, who lost the 2004 election to Bush, could boost Obama’s presidential bid by attracting more support from the Democratic establishment, which has largely supported Clinton, the former first lady.
But key endorsements don’t always produce success. In 2004, former presidential nominee Al Gore — who lost to Bush in 2000 — publicly endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who lost early contests and dropped out of the race.
Richardson, who would have been the first Hispanic president if elected, dropped out after poor showings in the early contests. He won just 5 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fourth behind Clinton, Obama and Edwards, and won just 2 percent in Iowa last week.
“It is with great pride, understanding and acceptance that I am ending my campaign for president of the United States,” Richardson told supporters in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I gave this race the best that I had.”
With another contest looming on the Republican side on January 15 in the economically battered state of Michigan, Republican candidates were trying to win over conservatives by stressing plans to push for extending Bush’s tax cuts beyond their 2010 expiration.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has unveiled a new plan that would preserve Bush’s tax cuts but also allow taxpayers to opt for a simpler tax code with three brackets.
John McCain, the Republican Arizona senator who voted against Bush’s tax cuts in 2001, said in Michigan this week he now supports making them permanent because of economic tough times.
Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, who trumpeted a decision not to launch a negative television ad against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa, aired one in Michigan on Thursday that indirectly criticized his work as a corporate turnaround banker.
“I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off,” Huckabee said in the spot. When Romney ran for U.S. Senate in 1994 he was criticized for his firm’s work that resulted in layoffs.
Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Steve Holland in South Carolina and Donna Smith in Washington; writing by Deborah Charles; editing by David Alexander and David Wiessler