Following on his success in Iowa, an increase in campaign donations and rising poll numbers in New Hampshire, John Kerry also won Thursday the coveted endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (search).

Hollings made the announcement Thursday afternoon in Columbia, S.C.

“I’ve been elected seven times to the Senate by South Carolinians and I owe it to them to tell them what I think. I believe John Kerry has the experience, judgment and character to lead this nation," he said. 

The senior senator is also scheduled to join Kerry in New Hampshire on Friday for campaign appearances aimed at appealing to military veterans. Kerry was a Vietnam War (search) hero, and often touts his veteran status at campaign events. Hollings was an Army captain during World War II (search).

Kerry, who will also be joined by former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, also a Vietnam veteran, is expected to discuss his pledge to be a “veteran’s veteran," keeping promises on health care, disability benefits and pensions. 

Hollings and Kerry have served together in the Senate for nearly 24 years, and Kerry has sat on various committees chaired by Hollings during that time. He has referred to Hollings as something of a Senate mentor.

An endorsement by Hollings, who ran for president himself in 1984 and is retiring from the Senate at the end of his term this year, carries considerable cachet among South Carolina (search) voters who head to their first-in-the-South primary on Feb. 3. While the state leans Republican, African-Americans, who make up 30 percent of the voting electorate, comprise as much as 50 percent of the Democratic vote in South Carolina.

The Hollings endorsement amounts to a disappointment for Sen. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search) of Arkansas, who are counting on strong showings in the South to build momentum for their candidacies. Edwards spent part of the day in South Carolina on Wednesday courting voters.

Hollings is one of five Southern Democratic senators who have chosen not to seek re-election at the end of his term this year. Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Graham of Florida, who dropped out of the presidential race last year, are also leaving the Senate.

Edwards has also decided to retire from the Senate this year regardless of whether he wins the presidential nomination. Zell Miller of Georgia has endorsed President Bush for re-election.

On the same day as Hollings' endorsement, Kerry also picked up two other congressional backers -- Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Rep. Lois Capps of California.

Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.