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In blow to Clinton, civil rights icon defects to Obama

by Stephen Collinson*

Hillary Clinton's troubled White House hopes suffered another body blow as civil rights hero and Democratic elder John Lewis defected to surging rival Barack Obama.
"Something is happening in America," argued Lewis, who walked in the iconic footsteps of Martin Luther King, and said he now sensed a comparable groundswell of historic change sweeping the country.
The timing of his switch was especially galling for Clinton, just days before Texas and Ohio hold March 4 nominating contests which her campaign admits she must win to keep her White House dreams alive.
Obama, meanwhile, in a preview of a possible general election match-up, sparred over Iraq with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
And a nagging uncertainty of the 2008 presidential race was put to rest when billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would not enter the fray.
Speculation had raged for months that the 65-year-old businessman turned politician would mount a muscular independent bid that could influence the outcome of the presidential race, likely by diverting Democratic votes.
Lewis, who risked his life in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said there was a spirit in the hearts and minds of Americans he had not seen since the 1968 presidential quest of assassinated Democrat Robert Kennedy.
"I want to be on the side of the people, on the side of the spirit of history," he said.
Lewis, 68, was the latest superdelegate — Democratic party luminaries who can vote how they like at the party convention — to choose Obama, further weakening Clinton's hopes.
Obama, on a day when he welcomed the one millionth donor to his campaign, said he was honored to have the backing of an "American hero and a giant of the civil rights movement."
Speaking on a Houston television station, Clinton said Lewis had "been my friend and he will always be my friend."
But she said the ultimate outcome depended on "what our positions are, what our experience and qualifications are, and I think that's what voters are going to decide."
McCain, spoiling for a fight with Democrats as he works to finally snuff out the challenge of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, took a strongly worded shot at Obama over Iraq, playing on the title of the Democrat's latest book.
"Where is the audacity of hope when it comes to backing the success of our troops all the way to victory in Iraq?" Senator McCain said in a statement issued after Obama and Clinton traded blows at a debate late Tuesday.
"What we heard last night was the timidity of despair."
Obama, who opposed the Iraq war and says he will end it in 2009 if elected president, hit back hard at McCain while campaigning in Ohio.
"John McCain may like to say that he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but so far all he's done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq that has cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars."
Obama has won 11 straight Democratic party nominating contests, has more popular votes than Clinton, is now beating her in the money-raising stakes, and is attracting more high-profile party endorsements by the day.
Bloomberg's announcement brought a sigh of relief to Democrats, dreading a potential repeat of the 2000 presidential election when Ralph Nader helped President George W. Bush to his razor-thin victory by siphoning support from Democratic candidate Al Gore.
Speculation built in mid-2007 that Bloomberg would run for president when he officially left the Republican party, amid reports that the founder of the Bloomberg media company was prepared to sink one billion dollars into his bid.
"I listened carefully to those who encouraged me to run, but I am not — and will not be — a candidate for president," Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed piece published late Wednesday on the website of the New York Times.
Pundits had said the popular New York mayor would likely wait to see who the party nominees were before taking his decision.
"If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach — and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy — I'll join others in helping that candidate win the White House," Bloomberg said Wednesday.