WASHINGTON (AP) – At 46, Barack Obama is too young to remember John Kennedy.

But he heard himself compared to the late president so often on Monday that he must feel like an honorary member of the family.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, summoning memories of his brother, the slain president, led two generations of the First Family of Democratic politics in endorsing Obama for the White House, declaring, “I feel change is in the air.”

Obama is a man of rare “grit and grace,” Kennedy said in remarks salted with scarcely veiled criticism of the Illinois senator’s chief rival for the presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as her husband, the former president.

Obama beamed as first Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, then Caroline Kennedy, and finally the country’s best-known liberal took turns bestowing their praise before a packed crowd at American University.

It was also about politics, though, with primaries and caucuses occurring in more than 20 states on Feb. 5.

Kennedy’s endorsement was ardently sought by all three of the remaining Democratic presidential contenders, and he delivered it at a pivotal time in the race. A liberal lion in his fifth decade in the Senate, the Massachusetts senator is in a position to help Obama court voting groups who so far have tilted Clinton’s way.

Kennedy is expected to campaign actively for Obama beginning later this week.

In his remarks, Kennedy methodically sought to rebut many of the arguments leveled by Obama’s critics.

“I know he’s ready to be president on day one,” Kennedy said, taking on one of Bill Clinton’s frequent talking points.

“From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth,” he said, an apparent reference to the former president’s statement that Obama’s early anti-war stance was a “fairy tale.”

“With Barack Obama we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay,” Kennedy said.

Lately, according to several associates, Kennedy became angered with what he viewed as racially divisive comments by Bill Clinton.

Kennedy usually refers only sparingly to his assassinated brothers, John and Robert, in his public remarks, and his endorsement of Obama was cast in terms that aides said were unusually personal.

“There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier. He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party,” Kennedy said, referring to Harry S. Truman.

“And John Kennedy replied, ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do. … It is time for a new generation of leadership.'”

“So it is with Barack Obama,” he added.

Kennedy began by paying tribute to Sen. Clinton’s advocacy for issues such as health care and women’s rights. “Whoever is our nominee will have my enthusiastic support,” he said.

But he quickly pivoted to a strong endorsement of Obama, who he said “has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history.”

“I believe that a wave of change is moving across America,” Kennedy said.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the senator’s son, completed the family tableau onstage with Obama. The congressman said, “In times such as these, we need, as we had with my uncle, a leader who can inspire confidence and faith in our government. A sense that our government can be good again.”

AP-ES-01-28-08 1826EST

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