WASHINGTON – Conservative politicians remembered the Rev. Jerry Falwell Tuesday as a prominent Christian leader who helped turn the religious right into a political power.
"Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Falwell's family at this difficult time," Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential contender, said in a statement. McCain spoke to graduates last year at Liberty University, the school Falwell founded, after a reconciliation between the two following a cold war dating back to the 2000 presidential campaign.
"He's certainly been a prominent figure in American religion and politics for the last 20 years," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Falwell, a television evangelist who founded the Moral Majority that helped elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency, died Tuesday after being found unconscious in his office at the university. He was 73.
The Baptist pastor had shifted his focus in recent years from political activity to theological work. He supported the evangelical right's opposition to abortion and push to include prayer in public schools.
President Bush said Falwell served as a God-fearing role model.
"Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family and freedom. As the founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., Jerry lived a life of faith and called upon men and women of all backgrounds to believe in God and serve their communities. One of his lasting contributions was the establishment of Liberty University, where he taught young people to remain true to their convictions and rely upon God’s word throughout each stage of their lives," the president said in a written statement.
Many of the Republican presidential candidates preparing for Tuesday night's debate in Columbia, S.C., expressed their condolences. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney remembered Falwell's faith and commitment to helping others.
"An American who built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith has left us. He will be greatly missed, but the legacy of his important work will continue through his many ministries where he put his faith into action," Romney said in a statement.
"He was a man who set a direction. He was someone who was not afraid to speak his mind. We all have great respect for him. … He is a person who told you what he thought and you knew where he stood. … My sympathies and my prayers go out to his family," said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"Today, America lost a true spiritual leader and a man of great faith in Jerry Falwell. His great words and actions will never be forgotten by the hundreds of thousands of people around the world that his life has touched. Jerry's moral character and principle will forever be remembered deep within my heart and those whose lives were so blessed to be touched by him," said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
"He was one of Christendom's great leaders who stood by his convictions and never lost his common touch. Many did not know about his sense of humor and compassion for people from all walks of life," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
Elsewhere, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Falwell is in large part the reason he became politically active, and had long been misrepresented by the press.
"I always find it interesting how the media portrays him much differently from how he really was. He was hard set in his ways, but he was very loving, extremely happy. If you ever walked with him across the Liberty University campus, you cannot get 10 or 15 feet without another step in coming up and giving him a hug. The last time I was with him, he gave me a big bear hug and lifted me off of my feet. He was a very patriotic man who had a tremendous impact upon this nation for the better," Perkins told FOX News.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he never met Falwell but offered his sympathies.
"I send my condolences to his family and parishioners around the country to people who care so much about him," Reid said.
Click here for pictures from Falwell's life.
Carl Moore, Falwell's physician, said the evangelist had a heart rhythm abnormality.
Falwell had survived two serious health scares in early 2005. He was hospitalized for two weeks with what was described as a viral infection, then was hospitalized again a few weeks later after going into respiratory arrest. Later that year, doctors found a 70 percent blockage in an artery, which they opened with stents.
Falwell founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, which began as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971. Liberty University's commencement is scheduled for Saturday, with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the featured speaker.
FOX News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.