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The scene at Bill Richardson's endorsement of Barack Obama

March 21, 2008 |  1:22 pm

PORTLAND, Ore. -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson formally endorsed Sen. Barack Obama today, calling his candidacy a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our nation."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, accompanied by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, speaks at news conference in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 21, 2008, after a rally where Richardson announced his endorsement of Obama.

Richardson, a former presidential candidate himself, said Obama's speech this week in Philadelphia on the nation's racial tensions inspired him and factored into his endorsement.

Later, Richardson told reporters that he had made his decision a week ago and called Sen. Hillary Clinton on Thursday evening to give her the news.

"Barack Obama addressed the issue of race with the eloquence and sincerity and optimism we have come to expect of him," Richardson told a crowd that Obama's campaign said totaled 12,000. (The video is available in the gallery here.)

Richardson said Obama could have given a "safer speech," but he did not.

"He could have waited for the controversy over the deplorable remarks of Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright to subside, as it surely would have," Richardson said. "Instead, Sen. Obama showed us once again what kind of leader he is. He spoke to us as adults."

Being a Hispanic American, Richardson said he was ...

especially touched by the speech.

"He asked every American to see the reality and the pain of other Americans, so that together we can rise above that which has divided us. He appealed to the best in us," he said. "I have been troubled by the demonization of immigrants -- specifically Hispanics -- by too many in this country."

Richardson had been aggressively courted by both Obama and Clinton. Former President Bill Clinton even traveled to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl with Richardson.

Noting his "great affection and admiration" for the Clintons, Richardson said he made his endorsement because the nation needs something different. He also called for an end to his party's endorsement process.

"It is time, however, for Democrats to stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will have against John McCain in the fall," he said.

Richardson, 60, was Energy secretary and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Bill Clinton's administration. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 through 1997.

He abandoned his own presidential bid in January, after a distant fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses. He has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate and is also a superdelegate, the 62nd one that Obama's campaign says it has won over since Feb. 5.

Richardson's backing is thought to be especially influential with the nation's Latino community, an increasingly important voting bloc.

Clinton has generally had stronger support among Latinos, something that has helped her compete against Obama's strong and increasingly loyal support among African Americans.

Richardson, meanwhile, recounted how Obama had helped him in a debate before the Iowa caucuses, where he had not heard a question that had been asked of him and Obama whispered that it was about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Obama called Richardson "one of the great public servants of these United States." He seemed a little confused about how long he has been campaigning, however, saying he has been on the road for "15 months," about two more than in reality.

Both Obama and Clinton have also sought to win the support of John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate. But comments he made on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" on Thursday evening suggested that no endorsement was imminent.

Just how much Richardson helps in Oregon remains unknown. The state is 86% white and is expected to be contested by Clinton, who has told the local media here that she will be make a campaign swing to the area soon.

In a conference call with reporters earlier this morning, Obama's campaign again suggested the media has not done its job in vetting Clinton.

Campaign manager David Plouffe said Clinton has a "character gap" that could make it impossible for her to win a general election. "There are character issues here that would cause us real problems in the fall," he said.

Plouffe said Clinton has run a campaign by "evasions and misleading the voters." He pointed to a statement she recently made on CBS' "60 Minutes," where she stopped short of stating that Obama is not a Muslim, despite having attended prayer breakfasts with him.

As the Obama campaign has been doing for the last several weeks, Plouffe also called on Clinton to release more documents from the Clinton Presidential Library and from tax filings.

"What are the Clintons scared of?" Plouffe asked. "What's lurking there?"

He then stated that the rest of the primary voters remaining and the superdelegates do not yet have all the information. "Democratic voters can't know what they really might be getting in a Clinton nomination," he said.

Plouffe also contended that Clinton's campaign is "pushing" the controversy over the Rev. Wright, Obama's longtime Chicago pastor and spiritual mentor.

-- John McCormick

McCormick posted this on The Swamp for the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.

Photo: Alex Brandon / Associated Press