CHICAGO – Former Sen. Charles H. Percy, a former Foreign Relations Committee chief whose moderate Republican views put him at odds with party conservatives, died Saturday in Washington. He was 91.

Percy’s daughter Sharon Rockefeller announced in March 2009 that he had Alzheimer’s disease. His death was announced by the office of his son-in-law, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Elected to the first of his three Senate terms in 1966, Percy was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He was helped by handsome looks, a rich baritone voice and the relaxed self-confidence of the successful business executive he once was.

But the silver-haired senator came to power when moderate Republicans were becoming unfashionable on Capitol Hill. He ended up backing former President Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 rather than go for it himself.

After that, his chances seemed to fade. Percy won one more term in 1978 but was narrowly defeated for re-election in 1984 by Democratic Rep. Paul Simon.

Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, whom Percy backed for U.S. attorney in Chicago, said the late senator was “a classic example of what a public official should be.”

“While he was unquestionably a Republican Party member and promoter, he was a man who could work with Democrats and independents, as well, who wanted only the best for his state and his country,” Thompson said Saturday.

Percy’s differences with conservative Republicans showed early on as he clashed with Nixon, opposing two successive U.S. Supreme Court nominees — Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.

But the engineer of a spectacular turnaround at camera maker Bell & Howell Co. was an apostle of free markets who sought to ease federal regulation of U.S. corporations. Percy often said that like Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was “a conservative on money issues but a liberal on people issues.”

He also opposed excessive partisanship, particularly as Foreign Relations Committee chairman.

“I don’t want foreign policy developed just by one party and ride roughshod over the other party,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. “I’d much more value a bill that has bipartisan support. That’s what this committee achieved in World War II, achieved in the Marshall Plan.”

In a statement, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said Percy’s “brand of moderate fiscal conservatism will be missed.”

Percy was elected when Illinois was a swing state where he could get votes from some Democrats and liberals. Early on, he had support of the United Auto Workers. The state gradually became more Democratic.