Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama shares a laugh Monday with Sen. Ted Kennedy during a rally in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The patriarch of the Kennedy clan passed a political torch to Barack Obama on Monday in a tumultuous college rally that glanced backward before reaching for the future.

"I know what America can achieve. I've seen it. I've lived it," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. "And with Barack Obama, we can do it again."

Accompanied by his niece, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy, and his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the white-haired senator gave a thunderous endorsement to the Illinois senator in a packed sports arena at American University.

"It is time again for a new generation of leadership," shouted Kennedy, who turns 76 next month and has served in the Senate since Obama was 1 year old.

As a weeklong push began toward the 24 state primaries and caucuses on

Feb. 5, the senator promised to lend "my voice, my energy and my commitment" to Obama's campaign.

Kennedy compared the spirit inspired by Obama's campaigns to the idealism ignited by his brothers in the 1960s.

"I sense the same kind of yearning today, the same kind of hunger to move on and move America forward," Kennedy said. "In Barack Obama, I see not just the audacity but the possibility of hope for the America that is yet to be."

"Ted-dee!" "Ted-dee!" "Ted-dee," the students chanted before switching to "Oh-bam-ah!" "Oh-bam-ah!" "Oh-bam-ah!"

The candidate said he accepted the endorsement with humility.

"I know the cherished place the Kennedy family holds in the hearts of the American people," he told the students.

"I was too young to remember John Kennedy, and I was a child when Robert Kennedy ran for president," Obama said. "But in the stories that I heard growing up, I saw how my grandmother and mother spoke about them, and about that period in our nation's life as a time of great hope and achievement."

The Kennedy endorsement was a blow to Obama's rivals for the Democratic nomination — Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. The Kennedy name is revered among many of the party's liberal constituencies, including labor unions, African-Americans, Latinos, abortion-rights advocates and gay and lesbian activists.

Caroline Kennedy said that over the years, "I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president.

"This longing is even more profound today. Fortunately there is one candidate who offers the same sense of hope and inspiration," she declared. "Barack Obama is the president we need."

Although Ted Kennedy said both Clinton and Edwards "are my friends," he made several pointed references to the campaign tactics of both Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

"With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion," Kennedy said. And apparently referring to Bill Clinton calling Obama's campaign assertions on Iraq "a fairy tale," Kennedy said, "from the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth."

Asked by reporters about the Kennedy endorsement, Hillary Clinton said, "We're all proud of the people we have endorsing us."

Disputing charges that she or her husband had practiced distortion or racial politics, she told reporters in a conference call, "There's been no two people who have stood against that more than we have over many years."

In addition to the Kennedy endorsement, Obama on Monday got the backing of author Toni Morrison.

Morrison said her endorsement of the Democratic presidential candidate has little to do with Obama's race — he is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — but rather his personal gifts.

Morrison, whose acclaimed novels usually concentrate on the lives of black women, said she has admired Clinton for years because of her knowledge and mastery of politics, but then dismissed that experience in favor of Obama's vision.

"In addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don't see in other candidates," Morrison wrote to Obama. "That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom."

Contributing: Nedra Pickler, Associated Press

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