Five current or former Democratic senators are running for president, but former Senate leader Tom Daschle has endorsed the only one he never served with — Illinois freshman Barack Obama.

“There is something unique about Barack,” he said in an interview. “I’m still hoping that in my lifetime I’ll experience again the inspiration I got in the ’60s…from the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. And I think Barack may have that quality.”

He wanted to endorse early, when he could be of more help, Daschle said. Since some argue the freshman senator doesn’t have the experience to be president, he said, “If somebody with experience is comfortable supporting him, maybe it will help blunt that argument.”

Daschle was upset in his bid for reelection in South Dakota by Republican John Thune in November 2004, at the same time Obama was elected to an open seat in Illinois. But he had met the then-Illinois state senator when Obama first was considering running for the U.S. Senate, then got to known him during the campaign year “and we really hit it off.” Daschle, a former Senate majority and minority leader, briefly had considered running for president himself in 2008.

As his party’s Senate leader for a decade, Daschle worked closely with the other four senators — New York’s Hillary Clinton, Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, Delaware’s Joe Biden and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. He and Dodd ran against each other for Democratic Senate leader in late 1994, and Daschle won by a single vote. Though Clinton didn’t join the Senate until 2001, Daschle worked with her at times through the Clinton administration, in particular on the failed 1994 effort for universal health care, when he was assistant majority leader.

He says he called each of the senators and had talked to most of them about his decision. “I am very, very fond of my former colleagues and, without exception, I think they’d all make a terrific president.”

In one sense, the Daschle endorsement isn’t a surprise: If he doesn’t know Obama well, a number of his former top staffers do — about 20 of them now work for the Illinoisan, either in his Senate office or campaign. Former Daschle Chief of Staff Pete Rouse now has the same job for Obama, and Obama’s political advisers include Daschle veterans Steve Hildebrand, Dan Pfeiffer, Devorah Adler and Julianna Smoot, his finance director. –Jackie Calmes