Gracious McCain puts bitterness behind him

The Republican candidate bows out with dignity and praise for Obama as he and his party start to think about what comes next

He'd rolled with the punches, absorbed dozens of bullets and kept on walking. He'd stayed chipper till the last and John Sidney McCain took his eventual punishment like the grand old military man America has always known.

"The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly," he said in a concession speech to supporters gathered at a Phoenix hotel. "A little while ago, I had the honour of calling President Obama, our next president, to congratulate him."

The Republican congratulated his rival on having "achieved a great thing for this country" and pledged "not to spend a moment regretting the actions" that led him to a landslide defeat. It was the most gracious concession speech, from a man who fought honourably but was swept away by a tidal wave of history. Mr McCain's campaign had occasionally strayed below the belt but his closing comments lifted him from the electoral mauling with dignity.

The same, however, could not be said for many of the 7,000 guests at Mr McCain's "Road to Victory" party. Widespread boos greeted his congratulatory comments about his victorious rival.

Nothing kills the atmosphere at an election victory celebration quite so readily as an election defeat, and for those who'd hoped against all evidence that the Republicans might edge it again, the speech made sober viewing.

Yet Mr McCain urged unity. "Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences," he said. "No doubt those differences remain. But these are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight that I will help him lead us through the many challenges that we may face."

As the debate among Republicans turned to how they had suffered their worst defeat in almost 50 years, Mr McCain accepted full responsibility. "It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine. Not yours ... I wish I could have done better, my friends."

Few believed him. The scale of defeat represented a national rejection of their most cherished values.

Mr McCain urged supporters to "find ways to come together" and help "restore our prosperity, defend our security ... and leave our children and grandchildren in a stronger, better country than we inherited." They responded with a half-hearted cheer, before going home to mull over the prospect of four years of an Obama presidency.

A handful stayed behind, mostly drowning their sorrows on free Budweiser, courtesy of Cindy McCain's beer distribution empire. By midnight, only an inebriated few remained. Mr McCain adjourned to his nearby condominium. He is expected to spend the coming days recuperating at his Sedona ranch, where he likes to spend time reading, walking and grilling meat.

His longer term future is unclear. Though he is likely to see out his term in the now strongly Democratic Senate which finishes in 2010, pundits say the 72-year-old is unlikely to retire.

Some, including his biographer, Cliff Schecter, expect Mr McCain to pursue a career as a television news pundit, columnist, and after-dinner speaker.

"Bob Dole went on to do Viagra commercials, and made people forget his campaign," he said. "McCain loves the spotlight, and the campaign showed that he's certainly got a self-deprecating sense of humour, so why not?" Others wondered if, given his "maverick" profile and track record of having often voted with Democrats, he might (once the dust has settled on the campaign) accept a role in a future Obama government-of-all-the-talent, perhaps in the sphere of defence procurement, or international diplomacy.

The man himself seems happy to serve his country in whatever manner he is asked. His closing comments, by which he hoped his candidacy to be remembered, urged the crowd to, in the words of his campaign slogan, always put country first.

"Believe always in the promise and greatness of America," he said. "Nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America."

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