(Updates with new material)
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democratic icon and a leading liberal voice, endorsed Barack Obama on Monday for the party’s presidential nomination and called the young lawmaker an inspirational uniter.
“He is tough-minded but he also has an uncommon capacity to appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature,’” Kennedy said, quoting from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861.
Kennedy, flanked by Obama at an ear-splitting rally of several thousand people at American University, said, “Every time I’ve been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same: I’ll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us.”
Kennedy invoked the memory of his brother, the slain President John Kennedy, and was joined onstage by the late president’s daughter, Caroline, and his own son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, in backing Obama, the 46-year-old, first-term Illinois senator who could be the nation’s first black president.
Supporters lined up for hours beforehand to see members of the nation’s most famous political family embrace a candidate whose charisma and youth have drawn comparisons to John Kennedy. Several hundred who could not get in the packed gym waited outside to cheer Obama and young women screamed “We love you Obama!” from dormitory windows.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Obama’s chief rival, brushed off the Kennedy endorsements while aides noted other Kennedys have backed her to be the party’s presidential nominee in the November election.
“At the end of the day this is not about anyone else other than the candidates,” Clinton told reporters in a conference call from Connecticut. “I have the experience we need to make the changes we want in America.”
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Sunday threw her support behind Clinton, who is seeking to be the first woman president. The daughter of former U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy said her brother, Bobby, and sister, Kerry, also supported the former first lady.
Republican presidential contenders, meanwhile, scrambled across Florida in a final hunt for votes on the eve of their biggest nomination test yet.
Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney competed to stick each other with the liberal tag, a political death sentence among conservative Republicans whose votes could be decisive in Tuesday’s presidential voting.
Romney branded three of McCain’s signature pieces of legislation in the U.S. Congress as liberal and reminded voters that McCain had briefly considered running on the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket with longtime friend Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
McCain laughed off the criticism and accused Romney of lacking conservative credentials, citing the near-universal health-care legislation signed by Romney in April 2006.
“He is consistent in that he has flip-flopped on every single major issue,” McCain told reporters at a shipyard in Jacksonville.
A new Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll showed McCain opening a narrow lead — 33 percent to 30 percent — over Romney, within the margin of error. McCain picked up 3 percentage points after obtaining the endorsement of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
McCain and Romney split the last three nominating contests as Republicans and Democrats battle to represent their parties in November’s presidential election. The winner will succeed Bush, whose second term ends in next January.
The winner in Florida will gain valuable momentum heading into the Feb. 5 “Super Tuesday” voting, when more than 20 states will have nominating contests.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are battling for a distant third.
Giuliani discounted polls show him trailing in his home state and Florida. “I win the primary in Florida, we’ll be right back on top in a lot of these polls,” he told CBS’s “Early Show.”
Aides to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards vowed to compete in all 22 states on Feb. 5 and stay in the race through the Democratic convention in August, despite a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina.
Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Tim Gaynor in Florida, Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Paul Eckert in Washington; writing by Thomas Ferraro and Andy Sullivan; editing by Bill Trott For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/