By Matthew Bigg
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - New Mexico Gov. BillRichardson on Friday endorsed Barack Obama's bid for theDemocratic nomination for U.S. president, handing the Illinoissenator a potential boost among Hispanic voters.
Richardson's endorsement posed a personal blow to Obama'srival Hillary Clinton, who also fiercely sought his backing inpart because as a Hispanic he is seen as influential within theLatino community, likely a key voting bloc in the Novemberpresidential election.
Also on Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saidshe called Obama to apologize for the unauthorized access tohis passport file taken by some department contract workers,two of whom were fired over the incident.
"I told him that I was sorry and I told him that I myselfwould be very disturbed if I learned that somebody had lookedinto my passport file," Rice told reporters at the start of ameeting with Brazil's defence minister. She said aninvestigation was being done through the Justice Department.
Obama and Clinton, a New York senator, are locked in atight race for the Democratic presidential nomination to takeon presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate,largely backed Clinton in nominating contests on "SuperTuesday," with exit polls showing her winning two-thirds of theLatino vote in several states.
Richardson, 60, was energy secretary and U.N. ambassador inthe administration of her husband, former President BillClinton, and his support had been courted by both Clintons.
"Barack Obama will be a historic and a great President, whocan bring us the change we so desperately need by bringing ustogether as a nation here at home and with our allies abroad,"Richardson, who had made his own run for the Democraticnomination, said in a statement.
In his statement endorsing Obama, Richardson urged theparty to rally behind one candidate, and said "it is now timefor a new generation of leadership to lead America."
While saying his "affection and admiration for HillaryClinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver,"Richardson said it was time "for Democrats to stop fightingamongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we willface against John McCain in the fall."
A skilled negotiator and diplomat, the popular governor hasbeen mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate orsecretary of state in a Democratic administration. He also is asuperdelegate who would have a vote in the nominating contestif neither Obama nor Clinton win enough delegates during theprimaries.
Richardson praised a speech Obama made earlier in the weekon bridging divides between blacks and whites, and extendedthat speech's message to appeal to Hispanic immigrants.
"As a Hispanic, I was particularly touched by his words. Ihave been troubled by the demonisation of immigrants --specifically Hispanics -- by too many in this country,"Richardson said.
He said Obama's speech "asked us to rise above our raciallydivided past, and to seize the opportunity to carry forward thework of many patriots of all races, who struggled and died tobring us together."
Obama gave that speech in response to a political firestormignited when news outlets called attention to sermons by theRev. Jeremiah Wright at a Chicago church that the Illinoissenator attended for two decades.
Wright, who retired recently, has railed that the September11 attacks were retribution for U.S. foreign policy, called thegovernment the source of the AIDS virus and expressed angerover what he called racist America.
Obama and Clinton both have been seeking high-profileendorsements as a way to bolster their campaigns. Both havealso actively courted former presidential candidate JohnEdwards, a former North Carolina senator. Edwards has yet toendorse either candidate.
Obama is due to hold a rally in Portland, Oregon, on Fridayat 9:35 a.m. local time (1635 GMT), his campaign said. He willthen spend the rest of the day campaigning in the state, whichholds a primary on May 20.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, editing by JackieFrank)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visitReuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online athttp://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)