Former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms Dies at 86

Former Sen. Jesse Helms, a Capitol Hill icon who devoted 30 years in the Senate to championing conservative causes, died Friday morning. He was 86.

The Jesse Helms Center posted a brief statement on its Web site saying Helms died at 1:15 a.m. in Raleigh, N.C., on the Fourth of July.

"He was very comfortable," said former chief of staff Jimmy Broughton, who added that Helms died of natural causes.

The five-term Republican senator from North Carolina formerly chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and used his clout to rail against Communism, liberalism and big government.

Known by some as "Senator No" for his opposition to Democratic measures, Helms was a polarizing figure for his positions on social issues.

He was a proponent of school prayer and an opponent of abortion rights and gay rights groups. In the Senate, he forced roll-call votes that required Democrats to take sensitive positions on topics such as flag burning and school busing.

No matter his positions, colleagues said he always was a gentleman.

"Senator Jesse Helms was a tireless advocate for the people of North Carolina, a stalwart defender of limited government and free enterprise, a fearless defender of a culture of life and an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty," President Bush said in a statement. "Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called the Miracle of America. So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July."

"Today we lost a senator whose stature in Congress had few equals," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "Senator Jesse Helms was a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in."

Funeral services are planned for Tuesday at Helms' longtime church in Raleigh.

North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who succeeded Helms, said, "I knew I could never replace him, but I continue to strive each day to provide the dedicated constituent service he provided the people of our state for 30 years."

"He's just a good, honest, decent man," former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole told FOX News. "Now his philosophy would drive some people up a tree."

Helms had a habit of blocking nominations and frequently clashed with former President Bill Clinton. In the '90s he blocked all of Clinton's judicial nominations from North Carolina for eight years.

But he also worked with some Democratic leaders, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Albright once said of Helms, he "was the kindest, most infuriating, politest, most aggravating and nicest politician I had to deal with in the United States Senate."

As he aged, Helms was slowed by a variety of illnesses, including a bone disorder, prostate cancer and heart problems, and he made his way through the Capitol on a motorized scooter as his career neared an end.

In April 2006 his family announced that he had been moved into a convalescent center after being diagnosed with vascular dementia, in which repeated minor strokes damage the brain.

His opposition to Communism defined his foreign policy views. He took a dim view of many arms control treaties, opposed Fidel Castro at every turn and supported the contras in Nicaragua as well as the right-wing government of El Salvador. He opposed the Panama Canal treaties that President Jimmy Carter pushed through a reluctant Senate in 1977.

Helms first became known to North Carolina voters as a newspaper and television commentator. Building a reputation through media, he won election to the Senate in 1972 and decided not to run for a sixth term in 2002.

Helms never lost a race for the Senate, but he never won one by much, either, a reflection of his divisive political profile in his native state.

He won the 1972 election after switching parties and defeated then-Gov. Jim Hunt in an epic battle in 1984 in what was then the costliest Senate race on record.

He defeated black former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996 in racially tinged campaigns. In the first race, a Helms commercial showed a white fist crumbling up a job application, these words underneath: "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority."

"The tension that he creates, the fear he creates in people, is how he's won campaigns," Gantt said several years later.

Helms also played a role in national GOP politics — supporting Ronald Reagan in 1976 in a presidential primary challenge to then-President Ford. Reagan's candidacy was near collapse when it came time for the North Carolina primary. Helms was in charge of the effort, and Reagan won a startling upset that resurrected his challenge.

Helms and his wife, Dorothy, had two daughters and a son. They adopted the boy in 1962 after the child, 9 years old and suffering from cerebral palsy, said in a newspaper article that he wanted parents.

FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.