A leader of the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton switched his allegiance to Barack Obama on Thursday and urged fellow Democrats to end the bruising nomination fight.
"This has got to come to an end," former Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew told reporters in his hometown of Indianapolis just days before Tuesday's crucial state primary. He said he planned to call all the other superdelegates he knows and encourage them to back Obama.
Bill Clinton appointed Andrew chairman of the DNC in 1999, and he led the party through the disputed 2000 presidential race before stepping down in 2001. Andrew endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton last year on the day she declared her candidacy for the White House.
In a lengthy letter explaining his decision, Andrew said he is switching his support because "a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to continue this process, and a vote to continue this process is a vote that assists (Republican) John McCain."
"The ship is taking on water right now," Andrew said at the news conference. "We need to patch those holes, heal the rift and go forward to beat John McCain."
Asked for a response to Andrew's decision, Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said, "We support that Democratic process and think that every American should be able to weigh in and support the candidate of his or her own choosing."
'Mettle under fire'
Andrew said the Obama campaign never asked him to switch his support, but he decided to do so after watching Obama's handling of two issues in recent days. He said Obama took the principled stand in opposing a summer gas tax holiday that both Clinton and McCain supported, even though it would have been easier politically to back it. And he said he was impressed with Obama's handling of the controversy surrounding his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Wright's outspoken criticisms of the United States have threatened Obama's candidacy. Obama initially refused to denounce his former pastor, but he did so this week after Wright suggested that Obama secretly agrees with him.
"He has shown such mettle under fire," Andrew said in the interview. "The Jeremiah Wright controversy just reconfirmed for me, just as the gas tax controversy confirmed for me, that he is the right candidate for our party."
Andrew's decision puts Obama closer to closing Clinton's superdelegate lead. Clinton had a big advantage among superdelegates, many of whom like Andrew have ties to the Clintons and backed her candidacy early on. But most of the superdelegates taking sides recently have gone for Obama, who has won more state contests.
That includes DNC member John Patrick, vice president of the Texas AFL/CIO, who announced his support for Obama Thursday as well.
Obama now trails her by just 16 superdelegates, 247-263. This week, he picked up 11 superdelegates, including three add-on delegates named by the Illinois Democratic Party, while she netted three.
NBC's national delegate count stands at 1334 for Clinton and 1490 for Obama. NBC’s estimated superdelegate count stands at 267 for Clinton and 248 for Obama.
[There are differences in how news organization count delegates, how they award superdelegates, how they account for states that have held caucuses but have not yet chosen their delegates, and how they project the apportionment of delegates within Congressional districts where the vote was close. The Associated Press and NBC news conduct separate delegate counts.]
Superdelegates are nearly 800 elected leaders and Democratic Party officials who aren't bound by the outcome of state contests and can cast their ballot for any candidate at the national convention. They are especially valuable in this race since neither Clinton nor Obama can win enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination through state-by-state elections.
Obama now leads in the delegate count overall 1735.5 to 1597.5 for Clinton. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the nomination. About 230 superdelegates remain undecided, and about 60 more will be selected at state party conventions and meetings throughout the spring.
Other party leaders are encouraging superdelegates to pick a side by late June to prevent the fight from going to the national convention in August. Andrews wrote in his letter that he is calling for "fellow superdelegates across the nation to heal the rift in our party and unite behind Barack Obama."
It's the second endorsement for Obama this week that could be influential in Indiana. Rep. Baron Hill, who represents a crucial swing district in the state, endorsed Obama on Wednesday. Clinton has the backing of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who has a vast organization in the state and has been campaigning aggressively with the former first lady.
Obama and Clinton are running close in Indiana and both need a victory there — Obama to help rebound from a loss to Clinton in Pennsylvania and to prove he can win Midwestern voters, and Clinton so she can overcome Obama's lead in the race overall.