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Kerry's Endorsement of Obama: Assessing the Impact

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) endorsed the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama today in Charleston, S.C., touting the Illinois senator as uniquely prepared to serve as the nation's chief executive.

VIDEO | John Kerry Endorses Barack Obama (CBS News)

Obama "brings the lessons of the neighborhood, the lessons of the legislature and the lessons of his own life" to the "awesome challenge" of running for president, Kerry told a crowd at the College of Charleston. "Those lessons made him a candidate to bring change to our country and they are the same lessons he'll take to the Oval Office every day to fight for you as president of the United States," he added.

Kerry brushed aside concerns of Obama detractors who assert the Illinois senator lacks the experience to be president. And in an obvious jab at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), he declared: "Some have suggested in this campaign that Barack is guilty of raising 'false hopes.' ... My friends, the only charge that rings false is the one that tells you not to hope for a better tomorrow."

Although former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) served as Kerry's vice-presidential running mate in 2004, relations between the two men -- never particularly close -- have grown more distant in the intervening years.

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 noting, 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 governor 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 Edwards, who shared the national ticket in 2004, were never particularly close, and both sides made clear after the loss that each of them was none too pleased with the efforts of the other 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 poohbahs 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.

(After the jump ... Read Kerry's e-mail to his supporters)

John Kerry sent the following message out to his supporters via e-mail today:

Hi Friend,

Martin Luther King said, "The time is always right to do what is right." So I'm choosing this time to share an important decision I've made, one I believe is right for this country.

The JohnKerry.com community has been very important to me and very important to the Democratic resurgence over the last couple of years, so I wanted to let all of you know my decision before I confirm it with anyone else. I want to share with you my conviction that in a field of fine Democratic candidates, the next President of the United States can be, should be, and will be Barack Obama. Each of our candidates would make a fine President, and we are blessed with a strong field. But for this moment, at this time in our nation's history, Barack Obama is the right choice.

Please join me in supporting Barack Obama's candidacy.

I'm proud to have helped introduce Barack to our nation when I asked him to speak to our national convention, and there Barack's words and vision burst out. On that day he reminded Americans that our "true genius is faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles." And with his leadership we can build simple dreams, and we can turn millions of small miracles into real change for our country.

At this particular moment, with our country faced with great challenges in our economy, in our environment, and in our foreign policy, and with our politics torn by division, Barack Obama can bring transformation to our country. With Barack, we can build a new majority of Americans from all regions who can turn the page on the politics of Karl Rove and begin a new politics, one worthy of our nation's history and promise. We can bring millions of disaffected people - young and old - to the great task of governing and making a difference, child to child, community to community.

Please click here to give what you can to Barack Obama's campaign for President and help build this future for our country.

The moment is now, and the candidate for this moment is Barack Obama. Like him, I also lived abroad as a young man, and I share with him a healthy respect for the advantage of knowing other cultures and countries, not from a book or a briefing, but by personal experience, by gut, by instinct. He knows the issues from the deep study of a legislator, and he knows them from a life lived outside of Washington. His is the wisdom of real-world experience combined with the intellect of a man who has thought deeply about the challenges we face.

History has given us this moment. But we need to decide what to do with it. I believe, with this moment, we should make Barack Obama President of the United States.

Thank you,
John Kerry

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 10, 2008; 2:21 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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