By Matthew Bigg
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Barack Obama wona coveted endorsement from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson onFriday as the State Department apologized that its workerssnooped into the Illinois Democrat's passport files and thoseof his two main White House rivals.
The decision by the Hispanic governor is a victory forObama and could improve his chances of winning over Latinovoters who have leaned toward New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Obama and Clinton are in a heated battle to represent theDemocrats against the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. JohnMcCain of Arizona, in the November 4 presidential election tosucceed U.S. President George W. Bush.
In an embarrassment to the Bush administration, the StateDepartment on Friday revealed that the passport records of allthree major candidates had been improperly viewed by threecontract employees and by a regular department staffer.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Obama, Clintonand McCain to apologize and the State Department said it wasconducting an investigation and would look at how to tightenits systems to prevent such privacy violations.
The incident revived memories of the political firestormthat erupted in 1992 after State Department officials searchedformer President Bill Clinton's passport and citizenship fileswhen he was the Democratic presidential candidate.
Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the UnitedNations and energy secretary during the Clinton administration,chose to abandon the former president and his wife, saying itwas time for a new generation to lead.
"Your candidacy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for ournation and you are a once-in-a-lifetime leader," Richardsonsaid as he stood next to Obama in Oregon. "You will make everyAmerican proud to be an American and I am very proud today toendorse your candidacy for president."
Clinton and Obama assiduously had cultivated Richardson'sbacking in part because the Hispanic politician could garnersupport among the Hispanic community, the fastest-growingsegment of the electorate and a potentially vital voting bloc.
Hispanics largely backed Clinton in nominating contests on"Super Tuesday," with polls showing her winning two-thirds ofthe Latino vote in several states, and it was unclear whetherthey might shift to Obama because of Richardson's endorsement.
Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, on a conference callwith reporters, dismissed Richardson's potential impact thisfar into the race. "I think that, you know, perhaps the timewhen he could have been most effective has long since passed,"he said.
While saying his "great affection and admiration forSenator Clinton and President Clinton will never waver,"Richardson, 60, added: "it is now time for a new generation ofleadership to lead America forward."
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 a superdelegate who would have a vote in thenominating contest if neither Obama nor Clinton win enoughdelegates during the primaries.
Obama leads Clinton in the state-by-state contest to amassdelegates who will formally select the Democrat to facepresumptive Republican nominee McCain.
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.
Speaking in Spanish, he said, "This is a man whounderstands us and who will respect us."
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 politicalcontroversy ignited when news outlets called attention tosermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at a Chicago church thatthe Illinois senator 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.
(Additional reporting and writing by Arshad Mohammed;editing by Vicki Allen )
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visitReuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online athttp:blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)