Sen. Ted Kennedy, the stalwart lion of the Democratic Party for more than four decades, kicked off the party's convention tonight with a dramatic appearance that galvanized the crowd into an enthusiastic frenzy.
Striding confidently onto the stage of Denver's Pepsi Center, the ailing senator, who is recovering from brain cancer surgery earlier this year, waved and gave the thumbs-up sign to a sea of delegates waving Kennedy signs.
While the crowd alternately cheered and wipes away tears for several minutes, the last living Kennedy brother smiled and said, "My fellow Americans, it is so wonderful to be here."
Alluding to reports that his doctors were hesitant to let Kennedy travel to Denver, the senator roared, "Nothing, nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight."
"I have come here tonight to stand with you, to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States."
Kennedy, relishing the applause and enthusiasm of the crowd, raised his voice to vow that "I will be there next January on the floor of the U.S. Senate when we begin," promising to help Obama pass legislation to make health care a fundamental American right.
In a poignant moment that seemed to represent the summation of the last few decades of American political history, the old warrior passed the torch to Obama and the new generation:
"There is a new wave of change all around us and if we set our compass through, we will reach our destination," Kennedy said.
Comparing Obama to his slain brother, John F. Kennedy, the senator shouted, "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. Our country will be committed to his cause, the work begins anew, the hope lives on and the dream lives on."
That last line resonated with almost all Democrats, a dramatic echo of his closing words in his 1980 speech at the convention, "and the dream shall never die!" recognized as one of the most powerful speeches in recent American political history.
While Kennedy stood and greeted fellow Democratic leaders, the crowd chanted his name and flashbulbs were popping.
"I can't put into words how meaningful it was," New York delegate Sheila Johnson told ABC News' Nitya Venkataraman. "He is the greatest senator in U.S. history."
She added that Kennedy's presence "reminds us as a party and as Americans what our core values are."
Brian Schatz, state chair of Hawaii's Democratic party, was equally moved: "It was thrilling. Not a dry eye in the house."
Schatz noted that Kennedy's speech was the ideal highlight of the convention's opening night. "For the younger generation, [it] drew a parallel between the Kennedy family and the Obama campaign," he said.
Kennedy was introduced by his niece, Caroline Kennedy, who lauded his "service and sacrifice," proudly describing him as a champion of the poor and dispossessed as she rattled off his achievements in Congress.