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Passing the Kennedy Torch

By Dan Balz
For political symbolism, there is little that can top Edward M. Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama. Before a jam-packed arena at American University, the lion of the Senate passed the Kennedy family torch to the young senator from Illinois in his bid to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., campaigns with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., during a rally on the campus of American University in Washington, Monday, Jan. 28, 2008, after he was endorsed by Sen. Kennedy, and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president John Kennedy. (AP)

Democrats have searched for half a century for a successor to the legacy of the two Kennedy brothers -- Jack and Bobby -- who in their own different ways inspired a generation of Americans in the 1960s. Today, the third Kennedy brother told Democrats that Obama is worthy of carrying that mantle -- of rekindling the Kennedy magic.

"I've seen it. I've lived it," Kennedy said. "And with Barack Obama, we can do it again."

If it were only an endorsement of Obama, Kennedy's decision would be significant enough. When he has supported presidential candidates of late -- Al Gore and John Kerry -- he has thrown himself into their campaigns with vigor that belies his age and physical limits. He is the party's emotional leader and his blessing is a valuable asset at a time when endorsements often carry little real weight with voters.

But this was more than just a decision to support Obama. In doing so, Kennedy consciously decided not to stay neutral in this most fiercely contested battle for the Democratic nomination. Instead, he chose to enter the fight against Hillary and Bill Clinton

Kennedy took sides after growing increasingly discomfitted by what he saw from the Clinton campaign. First came his private admonishment of Bill Clinton for the way he has chosen to criticize Obama. Ultimately there was the rebuke to the Clintons with a public embrace of Obama's candidacy.

Kennedys vs. Clintons is an irresistible story line as the campaign goes forward, warring dynastic families of the Democratic Party. The Clintons, who restored the Democrats to power after 12 years in the wilderness, seek to extend their hold on the party with the kind of tenacity that carried them to victory twice in the 1990s. The Kennedys have called on the party to skip a generation and embrace a leader who seeks to change the politics of the Clinton and Bush eras.

What are the practical effects of Kennedy's endorsement? Obama advisers hope that he can help win two types of voters where Obama has been weak: working-class Democrats with whom Ted Kennedy long has had great affinity, and Latinos, who have enormous affection for the Kennedys and who have been strong in their support of Hillary Clinton in this campaign.

Some strategists doubt whether Kennedy can deliver those voters in big numbers, and the first fruits of his endorsement will be seen on Feb. 5 in states like California, Missouri, New Mexico and Arizona.

But Kennedy's endorsement helps Obama in one other critical area. By lending his support, he helps to validate Obama as someone who, despite his limited experience on the national stage, has what it takes to be president and commander in chief. Stealing a line from Clinton's own campaign talking points, Kennedy thundered to the audience at Bender Arena that Obama would be "ready on day one" to be president.

"The biggest challenge for Obama has been getting past the concern that many voters have about his readiness to lead, and to have very senior senators who have served with him say that he has those leadership qualities is an important point of reassurance to voters," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.

Kennedy's endorsement -- which came a day after Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president, announced her support for Obama -- adds to others that the Illinois senator has picked up lately that speak to a candidate with appeal across the ideological spectrum of the party.

Along with the liberal Kennedy, Obama has won the support of conservative Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. He has been backed by red-state politicians like Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. According to many reports, he soon will add Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. As one strategist noted privately, the fact that Kennedy and Nelson can agree on a candidate, let alone one who is not the establishment favorite, is remarkable.

Clinton has significant endorsements of her own. Some were well earned, but others came by dint of her status as the establishment front-runner at the start of the campaign. What Obama's more recent endorsements reflect is sentiment among elected officials in areas of the country where Democrats have struggled that they see Obama as a stronger general election candidate in their region than Clinton.

The Kennedy endorsement was locked up before Obama's victory in South Carolina, according to aides to the Illinois senator. But its timing helps to sustain the momentum Obama may have gained from that big win on Saturday.

Obama enters the final week of campaigning running behind Clinton in many of the big states that will vote on Feb. 5. Clinton seeks a public relations boost from Tuesday's beauty-contest primary in Florida, where none of the candidates has campaigned. Kennedy's full-throated endorsement will help Obama keep attention on his candidacy.

In the end, endorsements are not likely to decide this nomination battle. This remains a choice for Democrats of two strikingly different styles of leadership and two candidates with superb assets of their own. But the Kennedy decision is far too rich in its implications for it to be treated as an ordinary event. What Obama can make of it will be up to him.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 28, 2008; 2:41 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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