Ending a 36-year presidential endorsement hiatus, the Los Angeles Times editorial board Friday threw its backing behind Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination and Sen. John McCain in the Republican race.

The endorsements come just days before California joins 21 other states in Tuesday’s coast-to-coast lineup of nominating contests in races that remain intensely competitive.

The endorsements – to be published Sunday – were posted online at 1:30 p.m. Friday. Although the board “strongly endorsed” Obama, its backing of McCain was more qualified, citing disagreements with him over issues including the war in Iraq, gay rights and abortion.

But it lauded the Arizona senator and Vietnam War hero for his approach to immigration reform, his opposition to Guantanamo Bay and the use of torture, and for his overall approach to foreign affairs.

“Those are positions that should impress voters across the political spectrum; indeed, part of the argument for McCain’s candidacy, as for Barack Obama’s on the Democratic ballot, is its appeal across the center,” the editorial said.

In backing Obama, The Times editorial said the freshman senator from Illinois “distinguishes himself as an inspiring leader who cuts through typical internecine campaign bickering and appeals to Americans long weary of divisive and destructive politics.”

And it pointedly found fault with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq.

“Clinton faced a test and failed, joining the stampede as Congress voted to authorize war,” the editorial said. “At last week’s debate and in previous such sessions, Clinton blamed Bush for abusing the authority she helped to give him, and she has made much of the fact that Obama was not yet in the Senate and didn’t face the same test. But Obama was in public life, saw the danger of the invasion and the consequences of occupation, and he said so. He was right.”

Editorial page editor James Newton acknowledged that the endorsements shared a common, although unintentional thread.

“It is true we are looking for unifying characters, and I think they both to some degree meet that criteria, though we didn’t set out with that as (a priority),” Newton said.

The last time The Times endorsed in a presidential election was for Richard M. Nixon in his 1972 re-election effort, a decision that then-publisher Otis Chandler came to regret as Watergate unfolded, Newton said.

At the time, Chandler was trying, he said, to “break … the connection to the Republican Party” that had dominated the paper’s editorial voice for decades, and Newton said Chandler believed the best way to do that was to remain silent on future presidential races.

With the changes since then, Newton said, there was no reason to remain silent.

“The whole idea of editorial writing is that it’s good for society in general to have a civil discourse about these issues,” he said.

AP-NY-02-01-08 1803EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.