The stage lights drained him. He was getting over the flu. The taping ran overtime. "I'm sympathetic to Reagan in his debate, because standing on your feet all that time is physically tiring."

Kit Salisbury has many more excuses for losing at "Tic Tac Dough" after sweeping 26 straight episodes and winning $199,750 in prizes and cash -- second highest in the show's history. Salisbury's downfall aired yesterday morning on Channel 7 but was taped in late August, so "I've had plenty of time to rationalize this thing."

Yet the 33-year-old Salisbury has not used the most flattering excuse of all: as a usually sure speller, he had never needed to learn the word he was asked to spell at his last stand: it was "misspell." He did: mispell.

Salisbury knew the right answer, of course; he just made a "verbal typo." Back at work at the furniture store he manages here, Salisbury says, "after all these years of priding myself on being a good speller, I'm really terribly embarrassed. I died by my own sword."

Salisbury's credentials for "Tic Tac Dough" are a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Virginia, graduate credits in history from the University of Miami, frequent plunges into nonfiction books and many viewings of game shows, such as NBC's original "Tic Tac Dough" in the 1950s. The popular trivia show was revived independently six seasons ago, and 160 stations carry it today. Channel 7 took it over from Channel 4 last month and kept it on the same schedule: 9 a.m. weekdays.

Stations sometimes host auditions for would-be contestants outside of Hollywood. Salisbury got his chance in Florida last March when he survived an elimination day of written questions, oral duels and conversation to display personality.

Salisbury spent the next month studying an almanac and books on entertainment, his weakest field. Then he, his wife Susan and toddler Betsy were flown to Hollywood for the season's last two days of taping. Salisbury says the contestants were told "be yourselves" but were taught to display various emotions on cue.

During his first game, Salisbury concentrated on the questions too hard to notice the cues. When his face betrayed indifference to a silver tea set, a frustrated prompter leaped up and mouthed, "Wow!" Salisbury nearly broke up.

His concentration helped him stretch his streak to 38 victories on four trips to Hollywood.

Between tapings, he had to fend off questions on the streets of Florida about the outcome of episodes not yet broadcast. When his defeat finally aired in Florida, two weeks earlier than in Washington, people teased him: "You know how to spell 'misspell' now?"

Salisbury will have to take solace in his slowly arriving prizes, such as seven AMC Eagles, two dishwashers, two rowing machines, a case of Doritos, another of Velamints, $66,000 in cash and the last thing the retailer needs -- furniture. He has determined a typically "prudent" strategy: Sell everything and invest the receipts.

He and his wife have yielded to the temptation to keep one gift only: a year's worth of Desserts of the Month. And they have no choice but to use five weeks of nontransferable trips to Hawaii, Mexico, Venezuela and Lake Tahoe.

Salisbury hopes to conquer other game shows someday, particularly "Jeopardy." "That's the cre me de la cre me of the game shows," he says then pauses. " 'Tic Tac Dough's' good, too."