It was just like a wedding reception -- except the groom got jilted at the altar.

The 500 people at the Hyatt Regency fully expected to celebrate John Ray's victory with an elaborate bash in the hotel ballroom. The three bars were full, the band was ready, the balloons were in place.

Instead, they found themselves trying to deal with the sinking realization that a victory party wasn't going to happen.

As Ray watched the returns from a room upstairs in the hotel, word of Dixon's early lead drifted through the crowd like a lead balloon.

"Ten percent?" said one man with a start. "Jesus!"

"It's crazy, crazy," said another. "It just doesn't make sense."

Campaign worker Aaron Dickerson looked over the room. "People look all tense -- like they're running for something."

There wasn't much to do except wait and eat. The lavish buffet the Ray campaign had ordered was set up about 9:30 p.m. Supporters glumly munched on fresh-carved roast beef and hot hors d'oeuvres as they watched election returns on the wide-screen TV.

"Have faith," shouted one man. "Plenty of time!"

Developer Don Brown wasn't so optimistic. He said that the other candidates had allowed Dixon to steal away the victory. "Everyone was focusing on John Ray and assuming he was the one to bring down," he said. "They gave her a free ride."

Brown said that Ray was perceived as a "nice guy" but Dixon "came across as a tough broad and I think people thought we needed someone tough."

For the next two hours, Ray supporters watched the returns and kept switching the television channel: Whenever a report from the Dixon campaign headquarters came on the screen, they zapped to another station -- "Star Trek," a baseball game, even a commercial for floor wax, anything to avoid hearing Dixon's voice.

At 11:20 a staff assistant announced to the crowd that only 20 percent of the votes had been counted; when they were all in, Ray would emerge as the next mayor.

"It's going to be long night," he said. "I want you to go out there and dance and feel good!"

And they did, but it didn't last long. Ray arrived 30 minutes later with his family to cries of "We love you, John." He congratulated Dixon on her "apparent victory" and said it was a lesson in never giving up. He thanked those in the crowd ward by ward for their work, told them he loved them and asked them to do what was best for the city. "Let's leave with our heart in the right place," he said.

One man tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. "If you try to step back and stay detached from it," he said, "it's been a fascinating summer."