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What Does the Kerry Endorsement Mean?

By Chris Cillizza, The Fix
The news that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) plans to endorse Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) later today in South Carolina should provide the Illinois senator's campaign with a day (or two) of positive press following his surprising loss to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in New Hampshire.

But, as loyal Fix readers know, we have long been skeptical of the power of a single endorsement -- even if it is by a former Democratic presidential nominee. So, what does Kerry's endorsement really get Obama?

In conversations with several current and former advisers to the Massachusetts senator, two immediate benefits become clear.

First, Kerry still carries a 3 million-plus person e-mail list from his run for president in 2004. That is, without question, the largest list of small-dollar donors within the party and one that Obama should benefit from in the very near future. Kerry showed in the 2006 election that the list responds when he asks it for money -- even for House and Senate candidates -- so it should be a financial windfall for Obama's campaign.

Second, Kerry still has the remnants of a national operation in nearly every state. That means donors, activists and operatives who know these states and will be able to add to the already large team of Obama backers around the country. Local knowledge and on-the-ground operatives are crucial to winning any of these early contests and could even prove decisive if Obama winds up as the nominee and is looking for people with in-depth knowledge of the general election battleground states.

One former Kerry adviser, granted anonymity to speak about the endorsement before it became public, said that the Massachusetts senator has a "really, really great" organization in South Carolina that should help Obama in the state's Jan. 26 primary. (It's worth nothing, however, that Kerry lost the South Carolina primary in 2004 by 15 points.)

Aside from those two practical components, Kerry's support for Obama could have powerful symbolic weight as well. One of the central questions still surrounding Obama is whether he is up to the job of president, whether he carries the requisite experience after just a few years in the Senate to serve as commander in chief. Kerry, a decorated military man and experienced hand in foreign affairs, can help to validate that Obama is indeed up to the challenge.

"Rank and file Democrats view [Kerry] favorably and see him as a serious person," said one source close to the Massachusetts senator. "If he says Obama is 'ready' it will reassure many who were unsure."

While most neutral observers believe that Kerry's endorsement is almost certain to aid Obama as he seeks to reassure the establishment he is ready, there are certain to be some dissenting voices that draw comparisons between this endorsement and former Vice President Al Gore's decision to back former Gov. Howard Dean (Vt.) in the days leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses.

At the time, Gore's endorsement was seen as the final piece of the puzzle for Dean, the establishment validation that his insurgent campaign required in order to close the deal. What it turned out to be, however, was the beginning of the end as many loyal Deaniacs saw their beloved candidate being reined in by the party establishment and reacted negatively.

The comparison is facile but not necessarily spot on. Unlike Dean, Obama has proven -- with his win in the Iowa caucuses -- that his campaign is more than simply a fun idea. Obama, unlike Dean, turned out thousands of new voters in the Hawkeye State and, in doing so, showed that his appeal was not just theoretical but practical.

That Kerry decided to endorse Obama should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched the political goings-on closely over the last few years.

Kerry and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) who shared the national ticket in 2004 were never particularly close and both sides made clear after the loss that they were none too pleased with the efforts of the other man on their behalf. Clinton could have been in the Kerry endorsement sweepstakes but those close to the Massachusetts senator note that he felt betrayed by the former first lady when just before the 2006 election she labeled as "inappropriate" a joke Kerry had told that if students didn't study hard enough they could "get stuck in Iraq."

Kerry's endorsement is the first major blow in the battle between Clinton and Obama for Democratic establishment support in the post-New Hampshire primary nomination fight. Between now and Feb. 5, each side is certain to try to one-up the other with various endorsement from party leaders in key early states -- witness Rep. Shelly Berkley's (Nev.) backing of Clinton yesterday -- in an attempt to show that the party poobahs are lining up behind their candidacy.

Our guess is that Clinton and Obama will both get enough major endorsements to neutralize their effect. And, remember, that voters tend to factor endorsements into their decision-making process but rarely use an endorsement to make up their minds. This nomination fight will ultimately be won not by the candidate with more endorsements but by the candidate who can best convince the American people that he or she shares their vision for the future of the country.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 10, 2008; 11:21 AM ET
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