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Kristen Daum, Published August 27 2009

Dorgan, Conrad supported Kennedy in early races

Sen. Edward Kennedy visited North Dakota several times for political rallies that helped build support for his and other Democrats’ careers.

Kennedy died late Tuesday after a battle with brain cancer.

Kennedy first visited the state in 1964 with a stop in Dickinson. During his next trip in October 1966, he bounced around the state with quick stops in Fargo, Bowman and Minot, to rally support for local Democrats, according to Forum archives.

In November 1971, Kennedy stopped in Bismarck during a five-state tour for the dedication of the Kennedy Memorial Center – and got a taste of North Dakota weather with 40-below wind chills greeting his arrival, according to New York Times reports.

By the end of the decade, Kennedy’s ambitions gave opportunities for other North Dakota Democrats to excel in the political arena – including U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad.

Dorgan, then state tax commissioner, was among the first North Dakota politicians in 1979 to urge the Massachusetts senator to run for the Democratic presidential nomination against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

“That was a time when the Carter administration was having great difficulty, and I did not think we would keep the presidency with him as the candidate,” Dorgan said Wednesday. “So I supported Kennedy.”

In December 1979, Conrad organized a Democratic fundraiser for Kennedy’s presidential bid that drew a crowd of 1,150 in Bismarck. Conrad was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but in a statement, he emphasized Kennedy’s “deep humanity and common touch.”

“He was the lion of the Senate and fought for what he believed was right,” said Conrad, who worked with Kennedy in the U.S. Senate for the past 23 years.

Dorgan directed Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign efforts in the state, before being elected a U.S. congressman that year.

Dorgan recalled Kennedy’s notable “twinkle in his eye and quick Irish wit” that were matched with his skill as a legislator.

“I’m pretty sure all of us would say he was the most effective U.S. senator,” Dorgan said. “He had a lot of passion and drive and worked very hard. He’s going to be missed in a very significant way.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541