Ted Kennedy
In this July 27, 2004 file photo, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the convention honorary chairman, addresses the delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)

Nebraska senators past and present, Republican and Democratic, saluted Ted Kennedy Wednesday as flags in the state were lowered to half-staff.

* "A towering figure in American politics and a tremendous force in the U.S. Senate," Chuck Hagel said.

* "He has a very large place in the history of the country," Bob Kerrey said.

* "An American legend," Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson declared.

* "A giant in American politics (who displayed) a mastery of the Senate," Republican Sen. Mike Johanns said.

Kennedy was not as connected to Nebraska as his brothers had been.

"Nebraska is a very important state to my family," Kennedy said during a 1980 interview as he rode through the darkness from Omaha's Civic Auditorium to Eppley Airfield late one May night.

"It was important to President Kennedy," he said, "and to my brother Bob."

Both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy won Democratic presidential primary victories in Nebraska in the 1960s with Ted Kennedy at their side.

But he lost his Nebraska primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter only days after the 1980 interview.

However, unlike his brothers, Kennedy had not campaigned extensively in the state. He made two quick stops, centered his bid in Omaha and scrapped plans for a major campaign rally in Lincoln.

In 1966, Kennedy campaigned in Nebraska for Lt. Gov. Philip Sorensen, the younger brother of Ted Sorensen, the native Lincolnite who had been President Kennedy's chief aide and speechwriter.

Sorensen lost his gubernatorial bid to Republican Norbert Tiemann.

During a speech to Nebraska Democrats in Omaha that year more than four decades ago, Kennedy spoke of the need for universal health care.

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His death comes in the midst of a raging battle over President Barack Obama's proposal to enact comprehensive health care reform.

"It's a tremendous loss for Obama," said Hagel, a former Republican senator.

"Kennedy was the one pivotal guy who could bring people together. And he knew the issue better than anybody.

"He was a deal-maker," Hagel said. "He always saw the way to advance your cause was to just keep trading up.

"Kennedy wanted to get something done."

Kerrey, a former Democratic senator, said Kennedy's death leaves a void in the Senate.

"You have 100 people and your most competent guy just died," he said.

"On health care, what he could have done - and what I think he would have done - is help unite Democrats in a way that allows Republicans to come on board," Kerrey said.

"It is more likely he would have been able to explain to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party why compromise was necessary," he said.

"It is more likely he would have found a way to get final passage."

Kerrey is president of New School University in New York City.

Hagel is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington.

Reach Don Walton at 473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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