Saturday, March 22, 2008

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson yesterday suggested when endorsing Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential race that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should drop out, while a primary-election lawsuit had made it tougher for the former first lady to secure the party’s nomination.

The one-time candidate’s endorsement helped Mr. Obama at the end of a difficult week, giving him the support of another former Clinton administration official who also is a superdelegate and a high-profile Hispanic.

“You will be an outstanding commander in chief,” Mr. Richardson told the Illinois senator at a rally in Portland, Ore., yesterday. “Above all, you will be a president who brings this nation together.”

The former energy secretary and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Clinton’s administration also said in an e-mail to his supporters on behalf of Mr. Obama yesterday that it may be time for Mrs. Clinton to get out of the race

“My affection and admiration for Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver,” he said. “It is time, however, for Democrats to stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will face against John McCain in the fall.

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“The 1990’s were a decade of peace and prosperity because of the competent and enlightened leadership of the Clinton administration, but it is now time for a new generation of leadership to lead America forward. Barack Obama will be a historic and a great president.”

Mrs. Clinton — who had been benefiting in polls from the controversy swirling around racially charged comments by Mr. Obama’s pastor — suffered an additional setback yesterday, when a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) over the party’s decision to strip Florida of its delegates.

Mrs. Clinton, who won in Florida, has been pressuring the national party to reinstate Florida’s delegates.

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta also said that the lawsuit “raises a number of significant and potentially significant questions,” giving the plaintiff — Victor DiMaio, a Tampa, Fla., Democratic Party activist — the option to amend and refile the challenge.

Mr. DiMaio, who filed the lawsuit last year, accused the party of disenfranchising Florida’s Democratic voters by barring them from having their say in choosing their party’s nominee.

He said yesterday he plans to refile the lawsuit as soon as possible.

“This is a very, very big legal question here,” said Mr. DiMaio, who said he voted for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in Florida’s Jan. 29 primary. “My lawsuit has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; it has everything to do with the voters of Florida.”

But the DNC says the party has the right to set its own rules on seating delegates, and it is standing behind its decision to penalize Florida for violating primary scheduling rules.

Mr. Richardson said he endorsed Mr. Obama in large part because of his speech on race earlier this week, saying the candidate “showed us once again what kind of leader he is,” by choosing to make tough remarks instead of easy ones.

“He appealed to the best in us,” Mr. Richardson said while campaigning for Mr. Obama. Oregon’s primary is May 20.

Another element that factors into the nomination is the Democratic superdelegates — members of Congress and state and local party officials and activists who will get to vote at the convention for their preferred candidate. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama can win the party nod without support from superdelegates, and he is slowly chipping away at the former first lady’s lead within this group.

Mr. Richardson is one of 62 superdelegates who have said since Super Tuesday that they back Mr. Obama.

The governor ended his quest to become the first Hispanic president in January when he fared poorly in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. He has said he wrestled with the decision of whether to endorse anyone because he has close ties to and deep respect for Mrs. Clinton.

He has been courted by both Democrats, but did not back either before his state’s Feb. 5 contest. Mrs. Clinton won in New Mexico, in part because of her strength with Hispanic voters, who have favored her in most elections this primary season.

He quoted Abraham Lincoln in his endorsement speech yesterday, saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Clinton strategist Mark Penn downplayed the usefulness of Mr. Richardson’s endorsement, telling reporters, “The time that he could have been effective has long since passed. I don’t think it is a significant endorsement in this environment.”

Mr. Richardson is the second former presidential hopeful to back Mr. Obama, joining Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who endorsed his one-time rival last month.

Former candidates Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and former Sen. John Edwards all have remained neutral thus far.

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