CHARLES CITY, Iowa – Former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley (search) endorsed Howard Dean (search) on Monday, giving the former Vermont governor another boost in the Democratic race for president.
Dean's "campaign offers American new hope," Bradley said. "His supporters are breathing fresh air into the lungs of our democracy. They're revitalizing politics.
"When Governor Dean says that his campaign is more about his supporters than about him, he shows admirable modesty, but he sheds light also on why his campaign offers the best chance to beat George Bush," the former senator said. "That is, he has tapped into the same wonderful idealism that I saw in the eyes of Americans in 2000, and he has nourished it into a powerful force."
Bradley himself ran unsuccessfully for the party's nomination in 2000.
With just two weeks left until primary voting begins, the endorsement puts the former New Jersey senator in the same camp as his former rival Al Gore (search), who shocked the Democratic establishment when he announced his support for Dean last month.
Bradley said voters in New Hampshire and Iowa had asked him whom he supported among the nine Democratic candidates.
"My answer is, Howard Dean," Bradley said. "The Dean campaign is one of the best things to happen to American democracy in decades."
At a town hall meeting in Fargo, N.D., Dean promoted his endorsements from Gore and Bradley.
"If there's a candidate in the Democratic party that can bring together the two candidates for president the last time, that fought like crazy, maybe we're not the weakest candidate. Maybe we are the strongest candidate and the only one that can unite all the Democrats around the country who get disappointed in Democrats in Washington."
The Bradley endorsement comes amid increasingly sharp criticism from rivals of Dean, who has gained front-runner status with money, endorsements and support in state and national polls.
The Bradley Factor
But just how much Bradley's endorsement will help the Dean campaign remains to be seen.
"Our candidate is going to be one who does position himself in the center," former Gore campaign spokesman Doug Hattaway told Fox News, referring to Dean's leftish bent. "I don't know if today's endorsement of Dean means he's making a move in that direction."
"No one's cast a vote yet — there's always surprises in Iowa and New Hampshire but Howard Dean is looking very, very strong right now," Dan Klaidman of Newsweek magazine told Fox News.
Although Dean and Bradley are very different in temperament — Dean is feisty and tenacious and Bradley is more of a "gentleman" — "that, in the end, is not what really matters here," Klaidman said. "What matters is, can Bill Bradley deliver votes?"
In the 2000 Democratic primaries, Bradley took a big loss to Gore in the Iowa caucuses (search), getting only 35 percent of the vote to Gore's 63 percent. He fared better in New Hampshire one week later, earning 46 percent of the vote, considerably closer to Gore's 50 percent. Dean is far ahead of the rest of the candidates in New Hampshire.
"The practicality of this endorsement may not be very great," Klaidman said. But it's more the psychological aspect of Bradley's support that may give the Dean campaign more of a sense of inevitability.
Bradley was a favorite of higher-educated, higher-income Democrats, according to party polls, a constituency that has leaned toward Dean in this year's contest.
But even some Democrats have said Dean could move the party too far to the left, leaving Bush to take the center in the 2004 election.
However, the difference in policy issues between Dean and the other candidates "tends to be overblown from time to time," Hattaway told Fox News.
Dean has to be hitting some kind of chord with voters, Hattaway said, and that's likely to be for more reasons than his liberal-leaning tendencies.
Supporters "are following Dean's success in the polls, and I don't think his success is because he's running to the left ... but because of his passion and the way he's running toward the issues," Hattaway said.
'The Race Isn't Over'
Dean's rivals downplayed the impact of the endorsement, as they did with Gore's.
"The people in New Hampshire pick presidents," Wesley Clark said while campaigning in Nashua, N.H. "They don't need people to tell them what to do."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said he wasn't surprised by the endorsement from his former Senate colleague. "I think endorsements are dubious. Look, Gore endorsed him and the race isn't over," Kerry said.
Bradley, 60, served three terms as senator from New Jersey, from 1979 to 1996. He was a Rhodes Scholar and an All-American basketball player at Princeton and later a star with the New York Knicks.
Both Dean and Bradley started their presidential campaigns as underdogs running against better-known rivals. Both stressed expansion of health care and racial healing.
According to the Dean camp, Bradley first met Dean in the fall of 1999, in the back of a Barnes and Noble in a mall in Wayne, N.J., when Dean happened to be in New York for Thanksgiving.
They reconnected in late 2002, and once Dean knew he wanted to run for president, the two spoke about every six weeks on policy topics like health care and what it was like to run for the presidency.
During the holiday season, Bradley, now working at an investment bank, began to consider which Democratic candidate could beat Bush, Dean's campaign told reporters on the Dean campaign plane. Bradley saw that Dean was able to engender a lot of enthusiasm and admired his use of the Internet.
On Jan. 2, as Dean was en route to another campaign stop in New Hampshire, Bradley called Dean to tell him he'd endorse him, Dean advisers said.
Campaign spokesman Jay Carson said Bradley will be "actively helpful" to Dean.
Gina Glantz, Dean's senior adviser who was Bradley's campaign manager, said the two get along well, perhaps because they have a "shared sense of humor," which she called "dry."
She said both men appeal to young voters and new voters and both reached out to the disaffected. She also recalled that Bradley was the first candidate to raise $1 million dollars over the Web, and petitioned the Federal Elections Commission to allow contributions over the Internet.
Dean flies back to Iowa on Tuesday for another rally with Bradley, a debate sponsored by National Public Radio (search) and visits to voters' homes in the evening.
Fox News' Ellen Uchimiya, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.