CHARLESTON, S.C. — John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, gave Barack Obama a timely endorsement Thursday, snubbing Hillary Rodham Clinton as well as his own vice presidential running mate.
Kerry came to South Carolina to embrace Obama, two weeks before the state's primary and with Obama needing a boost after Clinton's emotional victory over him in New Hampshire.
Quoting a black American hero in endorsing the man who hopes to be the first black president, Kerry told a cheering crowd, "Martin Luther King said that the time is always right to do what is right." Now is the time, Kerry said, to declare "that Barack Obama can be, will be and should be the next president of the United States."
The Massachusetts senator said there were other candidates he had worked with and respected but Obama was best able to bring Americans together.
"Who better than Barack Obama to turn a new page in American politics so that Democrat, independent and Republican alike can look to leadership that unites to find the common ground?" Kerry said. "That's what this is about."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the third contender in the Democratic presidential race, was Kerry's vice presidential running mate in 2004. Despite their political alliance, the two men were not close personally and differed behind the scenes on campaign strategy in a race that President Bush won.
Edwards responded to word of the endorsement with a diplomatic statement: "Our country and our party are stronger because of John's service, and I respect his decision. When we were running against each other and on the same ticket, John and I agreed on many issues."
Edwards later said he had known for months that Kerry would support Obama.
Edwards defeated Kerry in the 2004 South Carolina Democratic primary. Kerry had considered running again but decided a year ago he would not.
Kerry dismissed Obama critics who say the Illinois senator lacks the experience to be president. And he took a swipe at Clinton, saying, "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."
In a debate in New Hampshire, the New York senator said in comparing her ability and Obama's to fulfill pledges to bring about change: "I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change. And we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered. The best way to know what change I will produce is to look at the changes that I've already made."
Returning to the subject, Obama said when he took the microphone from Kerry: "In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."
Obama supporters were hoping the timing of Kerry's endorsement could give him a lift as he seeks to put his New Hampshire primary loss behind him. Obama also was endorsed Thursday by South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson.
Obama praised Kerry's Vietnam War service, calling him a patriot and a man of conviction.
Kerry was Obama's political benefactor once before, selecting the relatively unknown Illinois senatorial candidate to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. It was Obama's first turn in the national spotlight and helped launch him on a remarkable ascent that has made him one of two leading contenders for the party's presidential nomination only four years later.
Kerry had withheld his endorsement, hoping to influence the race and avoid the fate of fellow Democrat Al Gore, the 2000 nominee who endorsed Howard Dean in 2004 shortly before the former Vermont governor's campaign imploded. Gore has made no endorsement so far this year.
While Kerry has been close to Clinton's husband, the former president, he was incensed in 2006 when she chided him after Kerry suggested that people who don't go to school "get stuck in Iraq." Aides said Kerry meant to jab at Bush and say "get us stuck in Iraq," and that he didn't appreciate Clinton piling onto the criticism he already was getting for the remark.
Clinton reacted to news of the endorsement by saying she has a lot of regard for Kerry.
"That's his decision to make. I'm very proud to have the support that I have," she said while campaigning in Nevada. She also noted her own endorsement by Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents Las Vegas. "The people who endorse me really roll up their sleeves and really work for me. That's what I have seen and I'm very grateful for that," Clinton said.
Kerry's own hopes to run for president this year fizzled with that botched comment. For many Democrats, his words revived bitter memories of his missteps in 2004. In another area, he has backed environmental causes, writing a book with his wife on the issue.
Kerry should be able to provide some organizational and fundraising muscle to Obama.
Since losing the 2004 race, Kerry has kept a national network of supporters intact. He has an e-mail network of 3 million supporters, according to aides. He also has traveled extensively raising millions of dollars for Democratic candidates nationwide.
Later Thursday, Obama flew to Chicago to attend a pair of fundraisers. His campaign declined to say how much was raised.
The Republican National Committee was dismissive about Thursday's endorsement, branding Kerry and Obama "liberal soul mates."
Associated Press Writer Andrew Miga reported from Washington. AP writers Glen Johnson in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Christopher Wills in Chicago and Philip Elliot in Las Vegas contributed to this report.