Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) scored the endorsement of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) late last week — a move that her campaign touted as a major coup considering the civil rights icon chose her over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who would become the first black president if he is elected in 2008.
Lewis became the 29th member of the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus to issue a public endorsement in the 2008 White House race. And in another sign of strength for the frontrunning Clinton campaign, an examination of the CBC endorsements thus far shows that Clinton currently has a small but growing lead over Obama, who is himself a CBC member.
Clinton has the public backing of 15 members of the caucus, while Obama has 12. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) counts three CBC members among his Congressional supporters.
Lewis, who was beaten by police during the March 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, made the endorsement in Atlanta on Friday afternoon. He also campaigned with Clinton on Friday night in South Carolina.
“I have looked at all the candidates, and I believe that Hillary Clinton is the best prepared to lead this country at a time when we are in desperate need of strong leadership,” he said in a statement released by Clinton’s campaign. “She will restore a greater sense of community in America, and reclaim our standing in the world.”
The Clinton and Obama camps had been jockeying behind the scenes for Lewis’ support for months.
Earlier this year, around the time of the “Bloody Sunday” anniversary that drew both Clintons and Obama to Selma, Lewis was believed to be set to endorse Obama. But in the end, his long-standing ties to the Clintons, and especially to former President Bill Clinton, won out.
“This endorsement is the result of a long-term relationship Mr. Lewis has had with President Clinton,” said one Democratic strategist who is not aligned with either campaign.
Lewis did not endorse a candidate before the 2004 Democratic primaries and caucuses. But in the 1992 race, he was an early supporter of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s presidential bid.
Rep. David Scott (D), another member of the CBC from Georgia, was expected to formally announce his endorsement of Sen. Clinton on Saturday.
The Georgia delegation is just one example of the regional and home-state split in support between the two Democratic frontrunners.
Reps. Sanford Bishop and Hank Johnson, the other two CBC members from the Peach State, are backing Obama. However, Bishop’s wife, Vivian, was on the host committee for a Clinton fundraiser in the Washington, D.C., area last month.
An Obama campaign spokeswoman said the Illinois Senator has a deep admiration for Lewis and respects his decision to back Clinton. But she argued that Obama is the only Democratic candidate with an active field operation in Georgia and touted his endorsements from other black leaders in the state, including Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders.
Obama also has the support of 24 members of the state Legislature and at least a dozen faith leaders.
“We’re really, really confident where we are in Georgia,” Obama spokeswoman Candice Tolliver said. “We feel good about the support we’ve received so far.”
Among Obama’s highest-profile CBC supporters are House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.) and former CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (Md.).
The Democratic strategist stressed that all of the Members of the CBC are proud of Obama and want to see him succeed, regardless of whether they’re publicly backing him.
“You have people who’ve endorsed his opponents who are very proud of him, and very proud of what he’s done,” the strategist said. “He is the epitome of what they have fought for.”
But, the strategist said, the reality is that it would be impossible for a relative political newcomer like Obama to overcome the decades-old relationships that the Clintons have built with many CBC members.
He also said that Lewis’ endorsement, like all other endorsements, was a personal one and not likely to breed other Member support.
“People are going to make their own choice,” the strategist said. “These endorsements are personal decisions. They go with their gut.”
Several CBC members are currently sitting on the sidelines in the presidential race weighing whether to enter the fray.
CBC Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who has not endorsed any candidate, said in an interview with Roll Call last month that the CBC as a whole would not issue an endorsement and that she does not believe that Members’ individual commitments to the 2008 contenders will cause any internal strife.
Kilpatrick sparked some controversy last month when she and Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) co-hosted a town hall-style meeting with Clinton — and not any of the other 2008 candidates — during the CBC Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. Meek, chairman of the CBC Foundation, has endorsed Clinton.
Meanwhile, there also has been an intense lobbying campaign under way for the endorsement of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), who remains the most sought-after uncommitted member of the CBC.
Clyburn has not yet indicated whether he will make an endorsement in the Democratic race before next year’s primaries and caucuses.