COLUMBIA -- Former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges endorsed Barack Obama on Wednesday, giving a boost to the U.S. senator from Illinois in his pitched battle for the Democratic nomination against a pair of top rivals.
"He's a once-in-a-lifetime political figure," said Hodges, flanked by young Obama supporters at a news conference on the University of South Carolina campus. "He's the real deal."
Hodges will serve as a national co-chairman in the Obama campaign. His endorsement comes three weeks before South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary, seen as a crucial test of political strength after voters in Iowa and New Hampshire go to the polls.
Obama is locked in a close struggle for the nomination with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who represented North Carolina in the Senate but was born in the Palmetto State.
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In a campaign where candidates have touted the endorsements of deputy mayors of small towns, Hodges' backing is significant not because voters will automatically follow the former governor's lead, but because it reinforces a narrative the Obama campaign has worked hard to craft: that of an inspirational leader whose freshness can break through the logjams of Washington.
"As much as anything, it's his style," Hodges said in explaining his support of Obama.
In choosing to support Obama, Hodges decided against backing Clinton, the former first lady whose husband is beloved in the party, and spurned Edwards, the native son whose campaign commercials note his South Carolina roots.
"We're so delighted to have Gov. Hodges supporting us," said David Plouffe, Obama's national campaign manager. "He's the only Democrat to be elected in South Carolina to the governor's mansion in the last 25 years."