DENVER -- For a moment, it was as if 1963 and 1968 and 1980 never happened. The floor of the Democratic Convention became a sea of white-and-blue signs with the name of the man who never became president, who was supposedly too sick to even be there: KENNEDY.
Sen. Edward Kennedy overcame worries about his health to deliver one of his classic stemwinding speeches Monday night, 24 hours after secretly flying in from Massachusetts.
"The hope rises again and the dream lives on," he told the waving, cheering, tearing crowd, reviving memories of the speech he delivered in 1980 when he ended his only run for the presidency by conceding to Jimmy Carter.
He got many ovations, none louder than when he declared, "I pledge to you that I will be there next January on the floor of the United States Senate." The crowd chanted, "Ted-dy! Ted-dy!" for 30 seconds.
"He's our guy!" said John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, who predicted that Kennedy's appeal for unity would end any lingering bitterness between followers of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"When Ted Kennedy comes here to ask us all to pull together as a party, not many people in this hall are not going to take that next step," he said.
Alice Wolfe, a five-time Massachusetts delegate who'd stood crying upfront at Madison Square Garden when Kennedy conceded in 1980, said "it never stopped him. He didn't go in a corner and weep. He just started something else. And now here he is tonight — so tenacious!"
By appearing, Kennedy extended a string of consecutive Democratic convention appearances dating to 1972. After a video tribute, Kennedy walked onstage, a bit stiff, escorted by his wife, Vicki.
There was a stool positioned behind the podium. "When I saw that stool, I knew he's speaking," said Walsh, who used to work for Kennedy as an advance man. "Anyone who's advanced for him knows he likes a stool." But Kennedy didn't need it.
"It is so wonderful to be here," he told the delegates. "Nothing, nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering."
Afterward, Kennedy's son Patrick said that although his father had prepared for several days, he decided only earlier in the day to speak.
"He's amazingly resilient," the Rhode Island congressman said of his father. "I have a headache from the altitude today. I can't imagine what it's like for someone who's got radiation, chemotherapy and has to take a battery of drugs."
He was introduced by his niece Caroline Kennedy, who said her uncle had been "inspired all over again" by Barack Obama.
"Their stories are very different, but they share a commitment to the timeless American ideals of justice and fairness, service and sacrifice, faith and family," she said. "Leaders like them come along rarely. But once or twice in a lifetime, they come along just when we need them the most."
At a delegation breakfast Monday morning, when it was announced that Kennedy had flown in from Massachusetts, the news got a standing ovation.
"I'd heard it from a pretty good source last night, but everyone was thrilled to hear about it at our breakfast. This is the kind of moment that Sen. Kennedy lives for," said Gus Bickford, one of many delegates who feared illness would keep Kennedy away.
"I'd heard something over the weekend, but his health is such an issue it wasn't clear if he'd be able to come," said MarDee Xifaras, a delegate and longtime Kennedy supporter. "I'm a cancer survivor, and I know how draining this kind of thing can be."
Kennedy, 76, is receiving brain cancer treatment that has weakened his immune system. The convention had planned to honor him in absentia.
His 'final gift to the party'
Analysts said that, in addition to pleasing Kennedy's many admirers here, his arrival shifted attention away from speculation about tensions between Obama's and Clinton's supporters.
"It pushes the focus back on the challenge ahead and on Obama and the race. It gives people something positive to talk about," said Marcia Hale, who managed conventions for two nominees, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000.
"This may be Ted Kennedy's final gift to the party," said Thomas Whalen, a Boston University political historian who has written about the Kennedys. "This says that he feels this is the Democrats' year and the party is not as unified as he'd like it to be. His appearance takes the headlines away from the Clinton faction."
Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy gave Obama a crucial endorsement during the primary campaign, and Caroline co-chaired the committee that advised Obama on the selection of a running mate.
Stealing the spotlight
Obama said Monday while campaigning in the Midwest that Kennedy "happens to be somebody who I love to death. He's just a good man, and obviously he's going through a difficult time, but I'm glad that we can use this convention to remind people of the contributions he's made to this country."
Hale, the former convention manager, said that for all the planning and choreography, conventions are energized by, and remembered for, surprises such as Monday night's.
Kennedy's presence, she said, "just charges the atmosphere here. The emotion is enormous. It's just what you want to start off the convention."