By NEDRA PICKLER
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - A leader of the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton has switched his allegiance to Barack Obama and is encouraging fellow Democrats to "heal the rift in our party" and unite behind the Illinois senator.
Joe Andrew, who was Democratic National Committee chairman from 1999-2001, planned a news conference Thursday in his hometown of Indianapolis to urge other Hoosiers to support Obama in Tuesday's primary, perhaps the most important contest left in the White House race. He also has written a lengthy letter explaining his decision that he plans to send to other superdelegates.
"I am convinced that the primary process has devolved to the point that it's now bad for the Democratic Party," Andrew said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Bill Clinton appointed Andrew chairman of the DNC near the end of his presidency, and Andrew endorsed the former first lady last year on the day she declared her candidacy for the White House.
Andrew said in his letter that 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."
"While I was hopeful that a long, contested primary season would invigorate our party, the polls show that the tone and temperature of the race is now hurting us," Andrew wrote. "John McCain, without doing much of anything, is now competitive against both of our remaining candidates. We are doing his work for him and distracting Americans from the issues that really affect all of our lives."
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 Andrews 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.
Obama now trails her by just 19 superdelegates, 244-263. This week, he picked up eight superdelegates while she netted three.
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 1732.5 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.
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(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)