The word for the evening was numb.

"Really losing is worse than thinking about losing," said Democratic Party political director Ann Lewis, talking at the bitter end of a "Victory Party" at the Capital Hilton last night. "Really losing is the worst thing there is."

"I learned how to lose," said Lynn Cutler, the DNC vice-chair who was defeated in her 1980 and 1982 House races in Iowa. "Remember me? But this is worse. So much more was at stake."

"I'm tired, exhuasted and glad that it's over," said Gene Russell, the DNC communications director. "I guess in my heart I hoped for a miracle, but in my brain there was reality."

The party leadership was, like the 2,000 others at this DNC downer, milling around the dozens of television sets in the hotel ballroom, which gave this supposed victory celebration the feel of a bad party where everybody wanders around and finds no one they want to talk to and nothing they want to do.

When Mondale conceded at 11:30, little knots of campaign volunteers watched the screens with frozen faces. "I guess I expected for us to lose to begin with," said Gerry Jones, a 32-year-old DNC volunteer. "But now that the reality is here, I feel emotional and depressed."

Democratic Party Chairman Charles Manatt was chirpy in comparison. "I'm not depressed, because I never get depressed," he said. "We've gained in the Senate, kept our majority in the House and will never, ever have to face Ronald Reagan again.

As Mondale lost state after state, the mood in the hotel's grand ballroom went from forced gaiety to grim acceptance. DNC staffers said they never expected him to win, so had most of their hopes on the Senate and House races. When CBS projected Republican Sen. Jesse Helms the winner over Gov. James Hunt in North Carolina, there was rage.

"Oh no!" screamed Lonni Marchibroda, a congressional staff aide. "That guy is the worst."

The only real rally came when Jesse Jackson spoke. "Do not cry -- sweat," he told a cheering crowd that chanted his name. "Progress comes through sweat. It does not come through tears. Pull you head high and march on!"

And then, the band played "Celebration." People headed for the doors.

A lot of the action at the party occurred in the pressroom, where the party heavies trundled from ABC to NBC and CBS and back. Manatt surfaced at the ABC booth at 8:25 and then sat wired up in his chair while a gaggle of reporters, aides and people with nothing else to do waited for him to go on. His face seemed more pinched than usual, and he looked very unhappy. "Tense but calm," assessed DNC spokesman Gene Russell with a straight face.

Manatt was connected by remote hookup with the ABC anchors in New York as well as with Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. "This is the DNC remote, Frank," Manatt said into his microphone. "And it's very remote tonight."

The doom extended to a 22-year-old former intern for Kentucky Democratic Sen. Walter Huddleston, who had just lost the state. Meg Hartlage grew up in Elizabethtown, Huddleston's home district, and said, "I'm really upset right now. He's just like my dad and I'm really close to him. I'm mad at my state."

At midnight, as Ann Lewis watched the television as Geraldine Ferraro conceded, she smiled and said: "The first election, you cry. And after that you know that it's not the end of the world -- it's just the end of the campaign."