A day after Sen. Edward Kennedy announced his support for Barack Obama, likening the promise of the Illinois senator’s candidacy to the legacy of John F. Kennedy, both politicians spoke about the endorsement exclusively on the TODAY show Tuesday.
Speaking with TODAY host Matt Lauer, Kennedy parsed his support for Obama over longtime friend Sen. Hillary Clinton.
“I have great respect for President Clinton and great respect for Senator Clinton,” Kennedy said, sitting alongside Obama. “But this race really isn’t about President Clinton. It’s a race of enormous importance and consequence for our country.
“The stakes are extremely high when we look at the challenges that we’re facing at home and abroad, and I made a judgment and decision that Barack Obama has the ability and is the source of inspiration for our country at this time and can really make the difference, not only in this election, but as president of the United States.”
Obama, meanwhile, was eager to reach new voters.
“I have to make my case,” Obama told Lauer from Capitol Hill. “But obviously Ted Kennedy allows some people to listen who might not have listened otherwise.”
‘The world is changing’
During a raucous, 20-minute rally Monday night at American University — where his brother John spoke in 1963 — Kennedy evoked the memories of his late kin.
“There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier,” the senator said. “He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president (Harry S Truman), who was widely respected in the party. And John Kennedy replied, ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do.’ ”
“It is time for a new generation of leadership,” he said. “So it is with Barack Obama.”
Kennedy was flanked by his son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and niece, Caroline, daughter of the late former president. They also backed Obama in his first Senate bid.
The Obama camp is hoping the momentum of Monday night’s endorsement will carry into Super Tuesday next week. Polls still show Hillary Clinton ahead in 20 of the 22 states that will vote on Feb. 5.
Kennedy, still regarded as an impassioned stumper at age 75, is expected to quickly embark on a busy schedule that will include campaign stops in Arizona, California and New Mexico.
Many political analysts believe Kennedy’s influence with organized labor will benefit Obama, particularly as John Edwards’ campaign loses steam.
‘A bridge to Latino voters’
Perhaps even more impact will be gained for Obama in the Latino community, where Kennedy’s name still resonates — some 42 years after Sen. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, marched with labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.
“It’s a bridge to Latino voters, particularly in California and out west,” Tim Russert told Lauer on Monday. “Ted Kennedy is leaving today to go campaign with Barack Obama. Cesar Chavez was one of Bobby Kennedy’s closest friends and his entire network in California. This is a very big endorsement.”
Last weekend, Obama was attacked by Clinton and Edwards as not understanding the concept of universal health care — the issue closest to Kennedy’s heart.
Kennedy told Lauer he has complete faith in Obama’s ability to bring universal health care to the United States.
“It’s the passion of my life and I wouldn’t support Barack Obama unless I was absolutely convinced that he was for universal comprehensive health care,” Kennedy said.
“I have tried for 38 years to get universal comprehensive health care.
I have supported 12 different proposals to get there. Elect Barack Obama and we will get there. That’s the way I feel.”
‘Ready to be president on Day One’
Although he vowed to support whichever Democrat gets the nomination in August, Kennedy did take veiled swipes at the Clinton campaign. In an apparent response to Hillary Clinton’s oft-posed question of who will be ready to be president on “Day One,” Kennedy remarked that “I know that (Obama) is ready to be president on Day One.”
Kennedy also challenged Bill Clinton’s contention that Obama originally supported the Iraq war during its onset.
Clinton, the senator from New York who was also seeking Kennedy’s endorsement, spoke at a rally in Springfield, Mass., on Monday night.
Clinton downplayed the endorsement in a call with reporters, simply stating that “We’re all proud of the people we have endorsing us.”
Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said Kennedy’s support of Obama “ain’t going to move three votes.”
That brought a laugh from Obama.
“Well, there are a number of votes in the Kennedy family — more than three,” Obama told Lauer.
“But, look, I am grateful and honored to have Ted Kennedy’s support and the Kennedy family’s support. What is absolutely true is that ultimately the American people make decisions about the presidency on who they think can help them on the critical issues that they’re facing.”
‘The ultimate betrayal’
Kennedy was not without his detractors on Monday. The New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women called his endorsement of Obama “the ultimate betrayal.” NOW has endorsed Clinton for president.
Obama, who enjoyed a landslide victory over Clinton in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, said he was humbled by the Kennedy endorsement and for the association with his late brothers.
“I was too young to remember John Kennedy and I was just a child when Robert Kennedy ran for president,” said Obama, 46. “But in the stories I heard growing up, I saw how my grandparents and mother spoke about them and about that period in our nation’s life as a time of great hope and achievement.”
In addition to Kennedy’s endorsement, Obama also received the backing of noted author Toni Morrison, who referred to Bill Clinton as America’s “first black president” in 1998.
“You exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don’t see in other candidates,” Morrison wrote to the senator. “That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.”