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CHILMARK, Massachusetts (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he was heartbroken by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, a pillar of the Democratic Party who he praised as an enormous force behind social programs that improved the lives of Americans.
"His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected on millions of lives ... in all who can pursue their dreams in an America that is more equal and more just, including myself," Obama said of the senator, who was a crucial supporter of his presidential campaign.
Kennedy, who had been battling brain cancer for more than a year, died late on Tuesday at his family compound in Cape Cod town of Hyannis Port.
In January 2008, Kennedy endorsed Obama, who was serving his first term as a senator, for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many saw the endorsement as the passing of the political torch to a new generation.
The Massachusetts senator's illness had provided time "to say thank you and goodbye" that was denied to his assassinated brothers, President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, who was a U.S. senator and attorney general, Obama said in brief remarks outside the compound where is spending his vacation.
Obama was awakened shortly after 2 a.m. (0600 GMT) and told of Kennedy's death. He spoke with Kennedy's wife, Victoria, about 25 minutes later. Obama is on vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, just 7 miles off Cape Cod and about 40 miles (65km) from Hyannis Port.
"Michelle and I were heartbroken to learn this morning of the death of our dear friend, Senator Ted Kennedy," Obama had said in a written statement released overnight.
Healthcare reform has been Obama's No. 1 domestic policy goal and Kennedy called it "the cause of my life." The death of Kennedy, one of the most effective lawmakers in U.S. history, leaves a void as Obama and his supporters push for his nearly $1 trillion plan. One of the last conversations between the Obama and Kennedy was on the issue.
"The Kennedy name is synonymous with the Democratic Party, and at times Ted was the target of partisan campaign attacks. But in the United States Senate, I can think of no one who engendered greater respect or affection from members of both sides of the aisle, Obama said.
Obama, who was elected in November and took office in January, had last seen the senator in April at the White House. They also discussed health care on June 2, and they last spoke on July 10, after Obama gave Pope Benedict a letter from Kennedy, whose brother was the only Roman Catholic U.S. president and whose family are perhaps the most prominent Catholics in the United States.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott