John McCain ended his decade-long pursuit of the White House a short drive from his home, on the lawn of the Arizona Biltmore, where he held his wedding reception and celebrated so many of his winning Senate campaigns.
Standing on a stage between two long columns of palm trees in front of an American flag several stories tall, McCain told hundreds of supporters the voters had spoken clearly in favor of his opponent.
“It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment, but tomorrow we must move beyond it and get our country moving again,” he said in a subdued and even tone.
“We fought as hard as we could, and though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours,” he said, as the crowd shouted, “Nooooo!”
“I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election,” McCain said. “Every candidate makes mistakes, and I’m sure I made my share of them. But I won’t spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been.”
McCain had promised his supporters for months that election night would be a late one. But his night ended early.
As Pennsylvania and Ohio went the way of his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, the narrow path to victory his aides envisioned evaporated.
At the Biltmore, McCain acknowledged the bright future of his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a mention that drew some of the loudest cheers of the night.
The crowd was sour at the mention of Obama during the speech. There were scattered boos and jeers when McCain urged the Americans who supported him to offer the next president “our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together.”
McCain went home immediately after his speech. Plans for fireworks and a laser light show were abandoned.
“I know one thing, he’s going to get a good night’s sleep tonight,” an aide said.
Hours before McCain emerged from the Goldwater Suite, where he watched returns with his top aides, the somber and listless mood pervaded his last day of campaigning and the lush grounds of the Biltmore.
McCain was already emotional at a midnight rally the previous night on the steps of the Yavapai County courthouse in Prescott, Ariz. His wife, Cindy, was in tears when she introduced him, and McCain’s voice broke when he told his longtime supporters he would win the presidency Tuesday.
During McCain’s last dash to Colorado and New Mexico on Monday, aides insisted there was still a way to win. But even with their best efforts, their comments seemed valedictory.
In contrast to Obama’s relatively light schedule of the last few days, aides noted that McCain had run hard in the final stretch, crossing more than 3,700 miles in less than 24 hours.
Flying back to Phoenix after a rally in Colorado and a brief stop in Albuquerque, senior strategist Steve Schmidt said McCain would cross the finish line “head up, running all the way.”
“We had some tough cards to play all the way through, and we hung in there all the way,” he told reporters. Minutes earlier, McCain had parted the curtain dividing staff and media on the plane to speak to reporters as a nominee for the last time.
“We had a great ride. We had a great experience,” McCain said with his wife and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) standing beside him, their eyes filling with tears.
Before the concession speech, supporters drank bottled beer and wine in the Biltmore’s Wright Bar, grimly watching television screens as the networks announced that state after state had moved to the column of his opponent.
The second-guessing was well underway even before it was clear who won.
Gary Husk, a lobbyist and longtime McCain fundraiser from Tempe, said any GOP nominee would have faced an uphill battle with the unpopularity of President Bush. “This was obviously not the year of a strong Republican rebound,” he said.
But, smiling for the first time, Husk added that there was bright spot. He was confident the Republican Party’s prospects would improve with Democrats at the helm of the White House and Congress.
Before the race was called for Obama, Palin’s dad, Chuck Heath, was well aware that his daughter would not be the next vice president but said “the consolation is we need her in Alaska.”
Heath demurred when asked whether Palin would run in four years. But he hinted at his hopes with a parting wave: “See you in 2012!”