John Kerry had dreamt of winning the keys to the White House yesterday. Instead he and his supporters were left with the bitter pain of defeat.
"I'm sorry that we got here a little bit late and a little bit short," he said in a typically stoic confession at Boston's Faneuil Hall. His supporters whooped, cheered in defiance and blinked away tears.
The Democratic Party was staring at much more than another failed bid for the White House last night. After enduring its third - and by far its most serious - electoral pounding in four years, the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton was left without any significant lever on national power, leading some in its devastated ranks to wonder how it could ever win another election.
The long night of returns that stretched to yesterday lunchtime was an emotional rollercoaster ride for the Democrats. This was an election where, in the home stretch, all the signs seemed to be pointing in their direction. President Bush's approval ratings were wobbly, he was unpopular on almost all the issues dearest to voters' interests, he had led the country into a disastrous war in Iraq and he had turned the record budget surpluses of the Clinton years to record deficits. John Kerry was riding on his strong performance in the debates and looked noticeably more confident than the President in his final rally appearances.
As the first polls closed on the east coast, the party's spirits were soaring. Early exit polls suggested Senator Kerry was up in most if not all of the key swing states. In Boston, Senator Kerry's home town, supporters rushed to the knot of high-rise hotels, bars and restaurants around Copley Square for what they confidently expected to be the party of the year.
Group after group had put heart and soul into the effort to unseat President Bush - youth groups, unions, grassroots Internet fundraisers, poll watchers and get-out-the-vote volunteers - and Copley Square was abuzz with the sense of a great community coming together after a job well done.
But it turned out the exit polls were based on early voting, traditionally dominated by lower-income workers who trend to the Democrats, and completely underestimated the Republicans' own robust get-out-the-vote drive, notably among evangelical Christians in rural areas.
Reality set in slowly but steadily. At the Westin hotel, where the Kerry family and its closest supporters were holed up for the night, the mood soured from one of keen anticipation to dark solemnity.
In Copley Square itself, the faithful grew bewildered as the musical programme - Carole King, James Taylor and the Black Eyed Peas - was punctuated by increasingly bad news from the heartland. By the time the networks called Florida for President Bush at around midnight, the last bit of fizz went out of the crowd and they started streaming out of Copley Square clutching each other for comfort, openly spilling tears and expressing anger and incomprehension. "I'm going to get f***ing drafted now!" one young man barked into his cell phone.
The question mark about Ohio, which dominated the latter stages of the count, was a source of brief hope. When John Edwards, Mr Kerry's running mate, came to the stage promising to "fight for every vote", there were scattered cheers. But it was hardly enough to break what had turned into a deathly silence.
By morning it was clear that the defeat was as comprehensive as it was decisive. Even as Ohio's provisional ballots were being discussed as a possible 11th-hour lifeline, it emerged that Mr Bush had won the popular vote by a margin of more than three million.
The Democrats were too stunned yesterday to begin the process of post mortems and recriminations. But they surely won't be long in coming. As it did after the much more ambiguous 2000 race, the conservative wing of the party is likely to argue that Democrats need to become more like Republicans to broaden their appeal - especially on so-called "values" issues like abortion and gay marriage.
The liberal wing is likely to complain that the party was not trenchant enough in its opposition to President Bush's policies - on Iraq, principally, but also on education, health care and taxes.
In the end, though, the blame for this election must surely lie with the man at the top of the ticket. Yesterday, lip service was being paid to the fine campaign waged by the Kerry camp. But the Massachusetts Senator is likely to be blamed for two major failings: his inability to articulate clear positions on Iraq until late in the campaign, and his inability, with his East Coast patrician manner and over-wordy intellectualism, to get the heartland electorate to warm to him.
It may, in retrospect, be seen as an error of judgement, during the primary season in Iowa and New Hampshire last January, that Senator Kerry's major asset was his "electability". That determination may have sentenced them to a candidate who was many people's second choice, but almost nobody's first. What the Democrats need, above all, is a saviour to lead them out of the wilderness. Hillary Clinton and Mr Edwards are likely to be much discussed in the coming weeks, as is the party's new rising star, Barack Obama, elected on Tuesday as Senator for Illinois.
Whoever emerges will not only have to project personal appeal, however. He or she will have to restore a sense of confidence in a party increasingly embarrassed by what it is supposed to stand for.
One left-wing critic of the Democrats, columnist and author Marc Cooper, wrote yesterday: "Could there possibly have been an incumbent more easy to knock off than George W Bush? A real-life opposition party would have been insulted to be matched with a such an unworthy and frail rival. The Democrats, by contrast, got their lights punched out."
This is an edited extract from John Kerry's concession speech
I'm sorry that we got here a little bit late and a little bit short. I spoke to President Bush and I offered him and Laura our congratulations on their victory ... We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need - the desperate need - for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today, I hope that we can begin the healing.
In America, it is vital that every vote counts, and that every vote be counted. But the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process. I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that even when all the provisional ballots are counted, there won't be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio. And therefore, we cannot win this election...
We will go on to make a difference another day. I promise you, that time will come, the election will come, when your work and your ballots will change the world. And it's worth fighting for...
I'll never forget you and I'll never stop fighting for you ... I did my best to express my vision and my hopes for America. We worked hard and we fought hard, and I wish things had turned out a little differently. But in an American election, there are no losers, because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans. That is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on Earth.
With that gift also comes obligation. We are required now to work together for the good of our country. In the days ahead, we must find common cause. We must join in common effort, without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancour. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion. I hope President Bush will advance those values in the coming years. I pledge to do my part to try to bridge the partisan divide. I know this is a difficult time for my supporters, but I ask them, all of you, to join me in doing that. Now, more than ever, with our soldiers in harm's way, we must stand together and succeed in Iraq and win the war on terror...
We stood for real change, change that would make a real difference in the life of our nation... I leave this campaign with a prayer that has even greater meaning to me now that I've come to know our vast country so much better, thanks to all of you . And that prayer is very simple: God bless America. Thank you.