WASHINGTON --Senator Edward M. Kennedy Monday dropped his public commitment to support Senator John F. Kerry in a 2008 presidential race, saying that he won't wait "indefinitely" for Kerry to declare his intentions while the Democratic primary field takes shape.
Kennedy said he doesn't currently plan to endorse another candidate and still might support Kerry if Kerry decides to run. But in an hourlong interview with the Globe's Washington bureau, Kennedy offered strong praise for two of Kerry's possible presidential rivals: senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, calling them "formidable figures" who are connecting with rank-and-file Democrats.
Kennedy said his oft-stated commitment to support Kerry again was based on the assumption that Kerry would state his intentions by early 2007. Since Kerry pushed back his decision in the wake of following an election-eve "botched joke" that damaged his public standing, however, Kennedy said he has informed Kerry that he may get behind another Democrat for president.
"I was under more of the impression before that he was going to run and was waiting in time [to declare his candidacy], but now he's deferred that decision," Kennedy said. "I have no plans of supporting anyone else at this juncture. I'm also not going to just wait indefinitely until he's made a judgment or a decision."
Later in the day, Kennedy's office issued a statement clarifying that Kennedy will support Kerry if he declares his presidential candidacy "in the near term," though Kennedy aides declined to define that schedule.
Kennedy's comments mark the first public fissure between the two Massachusetts Democrats on the issue of Kerry's presidential aspirations.
Kennedy has been one of Kerry's strongest supporters both in the 2004 race against President Bush and in early discussions about the 2008 race.
In March 2005, when asked about a possible Clinton run on ABC's "This Week," Kennedy said, "My man is John Kerry." Kennedy endorsed Kerry again last October in an interview with the Associated Press: "If he runs, I would support him."
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said Kerry values Kennedy's friendship and guidance. While Kerry won't set a specific deadline, Wade said, the senator realizes that he must decide soon.
"He has no intention of waiting too long, kicking the can down the road, or holding this decision in limbo," Wade said. "Senator Kerry remains very grateful for Senator Kennedy's ongoing counsel, friendship, and support as he makes this decision" and work together in the Senate.
Kennedy's comments come at a difficult time for Kerry. Early polls show him far behind the leading Democrats in potential presidential fields, and many party activists want Democrats to look for a fresh face in 2008.
Aides and associates said Kerry has been assessing the political fallout from his comment _ eight days before midterm elections _ suggesting that poor students "get stuck in Iraq." When Republicans blasted him for insulting the troops, Kerry apologized, calling it a "botched joke" meant for President Bush.
However, Kerry associates said the stinging public rebukes he got from Democrats revealed the deep skepticism he'd face from his own party if he ran for president again.
Losing Kennedy's support would be a huge psychological blow to Kerry's White House ambitions. Though their relationship has been testy at times over the years, Kennedy was instrumental in keeping Kerry's 2004 presidential candidacy alive, working tirelessly for him in Iowa when few believed he could prevail in the party caucuses.
Kennedy's praise for Obama and Clinton adds to the growing perception that the two are distinct front-runners for the Democrats' 2008 presidential nomination, with Kerry trailing along with a cluster of lesser-known governors and senators. If Kerry runs again, he'd have to break through a crowded field of emerging contenders, Kennedy said.
"You'd have to say that there's a number of people who are out there -- Barack and Hillary, if Barack runs and Hillary runs -- they're obviously very formidable figures," said Kennedy. The senator is set to become chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, a panel on which Obama and Clinton both serve.
"They're obviously having a good deal of appeal, because I think that's what people want to hear about," he added. "They are ringing the bells, because they're talking about what people were, I think, concerned about during the course of the [congressional] election."
Obama and Clinton have not declared their intentions, but both have made moves in recent weeks that make presidential campaigns appear more likely. In his first visit to New Hampshire, Obama sold out a 1,500-ticket fund-raiser in Manchester on Sunday and was received enthusiastically, and Clinton has begun to connect with local party activists in early-primary states.
Kennedy acknowledged that Kerry has more flexibility to decide than some of the other candidates, because he has wide name recognition and a campaign war chest of $13 million. But Kennedy, a presidential contender himself in 1980, demurred when asked his advice for Kerry.
"I've known John long enough and been with him enough and he's a good enough friend -- this is going to be something he's going to, you know, make up his own mind about," he said.
Assessing the chances of one of the leading Republican presidential contenders, Kennedy said Governor Mitt Romney's strategy of contrasting himself with his home state "has its minuses as well as its pluses."
He said the strategy invites comparisons between Romney's record and what he's said while running for office in Massachusetts, including Romney's recently revived 1994 promise to "provide more effective leadership" on gay rights than Kennedy himself, his opponent in that year's Senate race.
"People go back through his record and see what he's been and where he's been in terms of Massachusetts, and where he is now coming from," said Kennedy, who defeated Romney in that 1994 campaign for his Senate seat. "That has been increasingly, I would imagine, an issue of concern for him."