Democrat Barack Obama's presidential hopes got a needed boost on Friday with an endorsement from the country's only Hispanic governor, Bill Richardson, a one-time member of the Clinton administration and former White House hopeful.
Richardson's endorsement was welcome good news for Obama who has seen his poll ratings slide in the tight race with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination after a row over incendiary racial remarks by his former pastor.
The New Mexico governor called Obama a "once-in-a-lifetime leader" who could inspire voters and overcome racial and political divisions.
"He understands it clearly that by only bringing people together and by bridging our differences can we succeed together as Americans," Richardson told a rally in Portland, Oregon, alongside the Illinois senator.
The announcement came amid a bizarre twist in the presidential contest as the State Department revealed that passport files for all three main contenders for the White House were opened without authorization.
A State Department spokesman said the passport files for Obama, his rival for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate John McCain were all accessed improperly.
The details of the breaches in the passport files remained unclear and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters there would be a full investigation.
On the campaign trail, Richardson's backing was a double victory for the Illinois senator, bringing on board a supporter with influence in the important Hispanic community and well-known ties to the Clinton family.
Richardson served as energy secretary and UN ambassador in the administration of president Bill Clinton and was called on to conduct delicate diplomatic missions in North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
In an earlier e-mail to supporters, Richardson reiterated his affection for the Clintons but said it was time for the Democrats to end their infighting and allow "a new generation of leadership to lead America forward."
Richardson praised Obama's widely-publicized address on race and politics on Tuesday, in which he tried to blunt the controversy over his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, saying his words were "courageous."
Richardson dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 10 after a poor showing in the first state-based primary and caucus contests.
Clinton's aides played down the significance of the endorsement as the race took on an increasingly nasty tone with Obama's aides accusing Clinton of "misleading" voters while her campaign charged the Illinois senator with engaging in "low-down politics."
The Obama campaign said the release this week of White House records during Clinton's tenure as first lady showed a lack of candor on key issues and were "just the latest in what has become a legacy of misleading voters."
"On issue after issue, Clinton says one thing while her record says another," the Obama campaign said in a statement.
Without openly mentioning the pastor, Clinton's aides accused Obama of lashing out at her to shift attention from his troubles.
"At this point, it is no secret that the Obama campaign is in political hot water, given the news stories of the last several weeks, and is basically desperate to change the subject," Phil Singer, deputy communications director for the Clinton camp, told reporters.
"They're seeing the ground shift away from them," Singer said.
For weeks, Obama and Clinton, his Senate colleague from New York, have been locked in a bitter and tight battle for the right to face McCain in the November 4 presidential election.
Estimates show Obama leading the former first lady in nominating delegates 1,628 to 1,493 but he faces a major test in the April 22 primary in delegate-rich Pennsylvania, where Clinton has a large lead in opinion polls.
Both contenders are still a long way from the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination and their battle could go to the floor of the party convention this August in Denver, Colorado.