WASHINGTON - 'Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike,' said John F. Kennedy on the day of his presidential inauguration in January 1961, 'that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...'
Those words were emphatically rehashed Monday when, following a decisive 28-point victory in Saturday's South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Barack Obama picked up powerful endorsements from three key members of the slain president's family.
Alluding to the party's history of change in the 1960s, the endorsements left the Democratic race abuzz -- revealing a strategy that may pay dividends as the Obama campaign gains momentum heading into the Feb. 5 'Super Tuesday' primaries in 24 states.
While Obama has dominated the youth vote, he has not done as well as fellow candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton among older Democratic voters. Drawing similarities with John Kennedy's mobilisation of young people, the Obama camp may be hoping to lure those older voters who remember the Kennedy presidency.
'If you stand with me in the days to come,' said Obama concluding his speech in Washington Monday, 'we will change the course of history, and light a new torch for change in this country and 'the glow from that fire can truly light the world.''
The last line of that plea was borrowed directly from John Kennedy's inaugural speech and was delivered just before Kennedy's famous 'ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country' line.
'Every time I've been asked, over the past year, who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same,' said Sen. Edward (Ted) Kennedy to cheering throngs at an Obama event at American University in Washington -- the location of a historic John Kennedy speech in 1963.
'I'll support the candidate who inspires me, inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our best hopes,' said Sen. Kennedy. 'I've found that candidate. And I think you have, too.'
Several campaign stops have already been scheduled in states like California, New Mexico, Arizona, New Jersey and New York where there are large populations of Latino voters who respond well to Sen. Kennedy and his strong pro-immigration record.
The surprise endorsement is widely viewed as a repudiation of Sen. Clinton's campaign -- particularly the negative tone it has taken over the past weeks -- amid press reports that Sen. Kennedy had become involved in a Democratic effort to cool off the attacks of Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton (1993-2001).
Sen. Kennedy reportedly called President Clinton and asked him to tone down his rhetoric after Clinton had sought to cast doubt on Obama's record of opposition to the Iraq war and his preparedness to occupy the Oval Office.
In a testament to the importance of the 45-year senator's endorsement, both Clintons had reportedly called Sen. Kennedy and asked him to remain neutral in the primaries. But Kennedy had apparently grown upset with President Clinton's continuing tone.
The New York Times reported that Sen. Kennedy had called the former president Sunday -- rather than his wife, the actual candidate -- to inform him of the impending endorsement.
Also present on stage at the rally and endorsing Obama were Sen. Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and his niece Caroline Kennedy.
Caroline Kennedy, John Kennedy's daughter, endorsed Obama yesterday with an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled 'A President Like My Father' -- her first endorsement in the primaries since she endorsed Sen. Kennedy in his 1980 bid.
In a recurrent theme of all the Kennedy's endorsements, Caroline Kennedy compared Obama and Pres. Kennedy, writing, 'I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president.'
'We need, as we had with my uncle, a leader who can galvanise a new generation of citizens to carry our nation forward,' said Rep. Kennedy, noting to the young crowd that his father had worked to lower to voting age to 18.
Obama has enjoyed strong support from young people, conquering the 18-29 vote in every state except Michigan, where Clinton was the only candidate on the ballot and the youth demographic was mostly 'uncommitted'.
To cheers of 'Teddy', Sen. Kennedy gave a rousing speech, refuting a laundry list of the Clintons' criticisms of Obama.
'We know the true record of Barak Obama,' said Sen. Kennedy, noting that Obama had opposed the Iraq war 'from the beginning', before taking a jab at Pres. Clinton's revision of that on the campaign trail. 'Let no one deny that truth,' he said.
Sen. Kennedy also took on the Clinton criticism that Obama was not experienced enough to be president. Citing Pres. Dwight Eisenhower's similar criticism of John Kennedy in the 1960 race -- when Pres. Kennedy had only one full term in the Senate -- and using the Clinton camp's own line about experience, Sen. Kennedy said, 'I know that [Obama] is ready to be president on day one.'
Sen. Kennedy's disdain for the way the Clinton campaign has been waged was also on full display during his speech. He repeatedly spoke of Obama as defying 'the old politics that parses us', 'the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion', and 'the patterns of the past.'
'With Barack Obama,' said Sen. Kennedy, 'there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign.'
Sen. Kennedy only mentioned Sen. Clinton once by name, saying that he respected both her and the other Democratic candidate, Sen. John Edwards, and calling them both friends. Sen. Kennedy pledged his 'enthusiastic support' to whoever emerged as the Democratic nominee.
The Clintons and the Kennedys have been close since the Clintons' rise to power in the early 1990s, working together on scores of issues and even vacationing off the Massachusetts coast together.
In a sign of Obama's galvanisation of the youth cited by all the Kennedys, a Georgetown graduate student told IPS that he had received word of the rally at American University through several text messages from friends rather than from the Obama campaign organisation.
The event reached a capacity crowd and the fire marshal had to turn people away -- including MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews.
© 2008 Inter Press Service