GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Democrat John Edwards endorsed former rival Barack Obama on Wednesday, a move designed to help solidify support for the party's likely presidential nominee even as Hillary Rodham Clinton refuses to give up her long-shot candidacy.
The surprise endorsement came a day after Clinton defeated Obama by more than 2-to-1 in the West Virginia primary, and it helped the Obama campaign steer much of the evening news coverage away from a painful subject. The West Virginia outcome highlighted Obama's challenge in winning over "Hillary Democrats" — white, working-class voters who also supported Edwards in significant numbers before he exited the race in late January.
Edwards made the carefully timed announcement at an Obama rally here, as the Illinois senator campaigned in a critical general election battleground state.
Edwards, who received a thunderous ovation when Obama introduced him to the crowd of several thousand, said, "brothers and sisters, we must come together as Democrats" to defeat McCain. "We are here tonight because the Democratic voters have made their choice, and so have I."
He said Obama "stands with me" in a fight to cut poverty in half within 10 years, a claim Obama confirmed moments later.
Edwards also praised Clinton, saying "we are a stronger party" because of her involvement, and "we're going to have a stronger nominee in the fall because of her work."
He said Clinton is a "woman who is made of steel. She is a leader in this country not because of her husband but because of what she has done."
Speaking after Edwards in the packed Van Andel Arena, Obama gave one of his most animated addresses in days, much of it devoted to his guest's favorite topic, fighting poverty. In America, he said, "you should never be homeless, you should never be hungry."
As president, he vowed to "lift up every American out of poverty."
Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement, "We respect John Edwards, but as the voters of West Virginia showed last night, this thing is far from over."
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and the 2004 vice presidential nominee, finished second to Obama in the Iowa caucus in early January before coming in third in the following three contests. He dropped out in New Orleans, the location a reminder of his attention to poverty.
Both Obama and Clinton immediately asked Edwards for his endorsement, but he stayed mum for more than four months. His endorsement would have carried far more clout if he had made it in February, when the Obama-Clinton outcome was very much in doubt.
Obama, speaking to reporters on his plane late Wednesday as he flew from Michigan to Chicago, said Edwards can help draw working-class voters and others to his campaign.
"I have no doubt that John Edwards can be extremely helpful to us campaigning in every demographic. But his passion and credibility when it comes to issues of poverty and the plight of working people in this country, I think, is a message that is powerful and one that fits with the kind of vision I have for America."
A person close to Edwards, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he wanted to get involved now to begin unifying the party. The two men spoke by phone Tuesday night, and Edwards agreed to fly to Grand Rapids the next day.
Edwards didn't even tell many of his former top advisers because he wanted to inform Clinton personally, said the person close to him. Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, who has said she thinks Clinton has the superior health care plan, did not travel with him to Michigan and is not part of the endorsement.
David "Mudcat" Saunders, a chief adviser for Edwards on rural affairs during the presidential campaign, said the endorsement should take some sting out of Obama's resounding loss in West Virginia.
"For Barack Obama, I think he ought to kiss Johnny Edwards on the lips to kill this 41-point loss," Saunders said.
Edwards waged a scrappy underdog campaign for the Democratic nomination, always outshone by the historic nature of Obama possibly being the first black nominee and Clinton the first woman. He continued to campaign after the family disclosed that his wife's breast cancer had returned.
Obama has 1,887 delegates, leaving him 139 short of the 2,026 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Clinton has 1,718 delegates, according to the latest tally by The Associated Press.
Edwards has 19 pledged delegates won in three states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Most of them have already been selected, meaning they are technically free to support whomever they choose at the party's national convention, regardless of Edwards' endorsement.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington and Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.