Former rival endorses 'extraordinary' Obama

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The Independent US

Barack Obama received a significant boost in his hunt for the Democratic presidential nomination yesterday with a formal endorsement from Bill Richardson, who bowed out of the race in January.

The announcement by Mr Richardson came on a day when Mr Obama's campaign was distracted by revelations of breaches of his confidential passport files at the State Department.

Later yesterday, evidence emerged that the files of Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama's rival, and John McCain, the Republican nominee, had also been accessed without authorisation.

For Senator Clinton, who lags behind the Illinois senator in the race for delegate and superdelegate numbers ahead of the party's convention in June, the move by the Governor of New Mexico is a hard blow. It represented a stunning switch of loyalty as he previously served in her husband's White House as a UN ambassador and as the energy secretary.

Mr Richardson, who some see as a possible running mate in November, is Hispanic and could bolster Mr Obama's support among latin voters, with whom he has so far been at a disadvantage. His siding with Mr Obama may encourage other still-uncommitted superdelegates to follow him. Because primary voting has been so close, it is the superdelegates who are likely to decide the race.

"I believe he is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime leader that can bring our nation together and restore America's moral leadership in the world," Mr Richardson said before appearing alongside Mr Obama at a rally yesterday in Portland, Oregon.

Mr Richardson made clear he had been swayed partly by the speech on race relations delivered on Monday by Mr Obama. "Earlier this week, an extraordinary American made an historic speech," he told the loudly cheering crowd. "As a Hispanic American, I was particularly touched."

A formal investigation was opened yesterday into how three employees at the State Department on three occasions – most recently a week ago – improperly accessed the passport files of Mr Obama. The inquiry was announced by the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. "I told him that I was sorry, and I told him that I myself would be very disturbed if I learned somebody had looked into my passport," she told reporters. "We are very concerned about this."

Officials said that two of the three workers involved had been sacked and the other disciplined. The furore yesterday evoked memories of a similar breach of Bill Clinton's passport files when he was running for the White House in 1992. That led to a three-year investigation that ended with no criminal charges being filed.

State Department officials said that the passport files of Mrs Clinton and Senator McCain had also been breached. The Clinton file was opened in the summer by a trainee. The breach of the McCain files was committed, however, by one of three disciplined in the Obama case.

However, Mrs Clinton's campaign team was more concerned that Mr Richardson's move does not trigger a broader flight of superdelegates – including the former candidate John Edwards and also Al Gore – to Mr Obama's camp.

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