Endorsements rarely determine the outcome of presidential races, but the decision by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to announce his support for Barack Obama today is nonetheless an important boost for Obama in his nomination battle with Hillary Clinton.
The endorsement is valuable for at least five reasons. The first is timing. Richardson has ridden to Obama's rescue during what has been the roughest stretch of his candidacy. It comes after the uproar over Obama's spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which has knocked Obama off stride. It comes after losses in Ohio and Texas, which cost Obama the opportunity to force Clinton out of the race.
It comes also at a moment when the Clinton campaign has become, if not confident, at least hopeful, that there is still a way for her to win the nomination, predicated on perceptions that Obama might be a risky candidate in the fall campaign. Richardson's endorsement won't eradicate all the problems that have sprouted up around Obama's candidacy, but his timing could not have been more helpful.
Second, Richardson sends a signal to superdelegates that they too should back Obama. This may be the most significant aspect of his decision to back Obama. Superdelegates will decide the nomination. There is no way either Clinton or Obama can get to the 2,024 votes necessary to win the nomination without the superdelegates.
Clinton's hope has been to keep those superdelegates on the fence long enough for her to demonstrate that she would be the stronger nominee -- whether by a string of victories in the final contests, by overtaking Obama in the popular vote (now a long shot, absent do-over votes in Michigan and Florida) or by growing doubts about Obama's staying power in the fall.
Richardson empowers other superdelegates to begin moving toward Obama now, or immediately after the primary season ends, to prevent a bloodletting inside the party that could damage the Democrats' chances of winning in November. As he put it in an e-mail to supporters, "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." That is a message that could resonate with the Democratic establishment, which is now implicitly in Obama's camp, and prompt other calls for an end to hostilities.
Third, Richardson is close to both Clintons. He served as United Nations ambassador and later as Energy secretary in Bill Clinton's administration. He and the former president famously munched their way through the Super Bowl in February in what clearly was an attempt by the Clinton team to woo and win his support. During a number of debates, Richardson leaped to Clinton's defense when she was coming under attack from Obama or John Edwards.
Though there were reports that his conversations with the Clintons about an endorsement immediately after he left the presidential race did not go terribly well, symbolically his connections with the Clintons will raise questions as to why he decided to turn his back on the New York senator, rather than remaining neutral in the nomination battle.
Fourth, Richardson implicitly helps Obama answer questions about his readiness to be commander in chief. More than any other candidate in the Democratic race, Richardson based his campaign on his foreign policy resume. Along with Joe Biden, he has more experience in that area than any of their rivals. Clinton's ad asking who voters want to answer the White House phone at 3 a.m. clearly hurt Obama, and while a single endorsement from a foreign policy heavyweight won't end questions about Obama's credentials, Richardson's decision to end his neutrality undercuts Clinton's argument that she alone is ready to take on the powers of the presidency.
Fifth, Richardson's support could help Obama improve his standing with Hispanic voters. Clearly an endorsement would have been more valuable before the Texas primary, where Clinton beat Obama by 2-1 among Hispanics. But better late than never. Obama has struggled throughout the primaries to demonstrate consistent strength among Latinos and only in a few circumstances has he done so. If he is the nominee, he will need all the help he can muster to win the kind of majority among Hispanics any Democrat must have to win the White House. Clinton still will be heavily favored to win the Puerto Rico primary in June, but as the first Hispanic candidate for president, Richardson's endorsement speaks to a weakness in Obama's candidacy.
At a time when some Democrats have cautiously pulled back from Obama to see how he weathers the crisis over Rev. Wright, Richardson did the opposite. He told supporters in his e-mail message that he was moved to make his endorsement now because of the speech Obama gave on Tuesday in Philadelphia, which Richardson said demonstrated "the eloquence, sincerity, and optimism we have come to expect of him." As someone who repeatedly urged a politics of harmony and not hostility during his own candidacy, Richardson said he saw in Obama the kind of leadership the country now needs.
Not even friends of Richardson believe his endorsement will be decisive in the competition between Obama and Clinton. "I would not overstate the importance of any one endorsement," one of those Richardson allies said Friday morning. Obama still must win the nomination on the strength of his own performance from here forward and there was every indication Friday morning that both campaigns are prepared for more serious combat in the coming weeks. But Richardson's endorsement and in particular his warning about the consequences of indefinite conflict may influence other Democrats still trying to decide what to do.