California First Lady Maria Shriver delivered a surprise endorsement of Barack Obama on Sunday, overcoming qualms about going public because, she said, the Illinois senator was the presidential candidate able to unify the country across racial, ethnic and other lines of division.
"He's not about himself," she told a cheering crowd at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. "He's about the power of us and what we can do if we come together. . . . He is about empowering women, African Americans, Latinos, older people, young people. He's about empowering all of us."
Shriver's announcement -- made at the end of a rally featuring Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy and Obama's wife, Michelle -- aligned the first lady with much of the rest of the Kennedy clan. It also marked a split with her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last week endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"I thought, if Barack Obama was a state, he'd be California," Shriver said as the crowd of thousands roared in a chorus that rose as she ticked off each attribute: "Diverse. Open. Smart. Independent. Bucks tradition. Innovative. Inspirational. Dreamer. Leader."
Shriver's break with her husband was not unusual. The two -- she a fierce Democrat, he a loyal Republican -- have one of the nation's most famous political mixed marriages.
Shriver apparently wavered until close to the last minute. In fact, aides to Obama were not certain she would come through until she strode onstage -- without makeup and her hair unbrushed, she said, after arriving straight from a daughter's equestrian show.
Like many, Shriver said, she felt pulled in several directions.
"Every single person can come to you and tell you, 'You should vote for this person' or 'You should vote for that person.' `It's not right to speak up. It's not right to speak out,' " Shriver said, her voice echoing through the arena. "But this is a moment to have a conversation with yourself, not anyone else. Have a conversation with your own heart. And ask yourself, 'What kind of America do I believe in?' "
Like the Democratic Party in miniature, the Kennedy family has split over the two top presidential contenders. Also supporting Obama are Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts; his son Patrick; and niece Caroline, the daughter of President Kennedy. On Saturday, Obama also received the endorsement of Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has picked up the support of three of Robert and Ethel's children: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kerry Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Shriver's endorsement and Winfrey's celebrity pageant, which included walk-on guest Stevie Wonder, guaranteed Obama extensive news coverage in the final 24 hours of the campaign -- an enormous asset in this far-flung state.
"The drama of it all was just delicious," said USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. Shriver "probably edged out Bill Clinton" -- who spent Sunday morning visiting Los Angeles-area black churches -- "and Oprah Winfrey as the story of the day, at least in California."
Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.