SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the year of the Democrat and the year of the woman, Rep. Elizabeth Patterson, who is both, is out of a job. After six years in Congress, with a voting record more middle of the road than a yellow line, two negligible checks bounced briefly in the House bank, a sterling record of constituent service and no sex scandals or bribery allegations, 5,700 voters from the 4th District of South Carolina sent her packing.

Liz Patterson did not expect to lose. Few people did -- except her scrappy 33-year-old Republican opponent, Bob Inglis. Her polls were good, the newspaper polls likewise, the voter feedback was positive everywhere she went. People liked her. But there she was, facing defeat in an election for the first time since high school, becoming part of the tiny 7 percent of incumbents who lost.

She did the right thing election night -- she called Inglis and conceded. She wished him luck, which she could honestly do, but she could not bring herself to say "congratulations." Some of the television people thought she was ungracious.

She did not cry in public. She went into the ladies' room and cried alone.

Liz Patterson's reaction to losing is inextricably tied to her thoughts about why she lost, and that analysis left her feeling bruised and rejected, the victim of a negative campaign and the Christian Coalition. "I thought they would realize how hard I'd worked for them," she said, sitting in her Spartanburg office a week after the election. She ran her finger around the rim of her coffee mug. The phone -- normally a constant noise on her days in the district -- was silent.

"I know these people," she said. "They know me. I can't believe they would question my life, my God, my religion." She feels this way because the Sunday before the election, the Christian Coalition distributed 200,000 "Voter Guides" that she believes misrepresented her. She knew many of the pastors who distributed this literature and called some to tell them it was inaccurate. They didn't seem interested, she said.

Inglis, of course, sees it differently. "They didn't hear the drums," he said of Patterson and her campaign staff. "And there were a lot of little drums playing." During the campaign he held her personally responsible for every sensational failing of the U.S. Congress -- the House post office employees charged with distributing cocaine, the mismanaged bank, the influence of political action committees. He believes it was perfectly legitimate to distribute 75,000 "door hangers" that said Patterson "Covers Up Cocaine Sales" in large type -- among other charges. Or to hand out "Bounce Liz" bumper stickers designed to look like a check. After all, he said, it was "nothing personal against Liz Patterson." And it worked.

Nothing personal. Liz Patterson is trying hard to see it that way, but when you find the name of a friend on your opponent's campaign contribution report -- twice -- it hurts. When you get a letter from a man who says he's "praying for your defeat," it rankles. When your daughter sees one of your campaign posters defaced by the scrawl "Lesbian Liz," it makes you angry.

She suspected the vote was not going her way when no returns were

broadcast between 8 and 9 p.m. In previous counts, her victory had been clear by then. When she got to her Greenville headquarters at about 10 p.m., her staff took her into the back room. "It's not looking good," they said.

The morning after the election it rained, torrents. As Patterson was getting into her car, a man from her neighborhood -- a disabled guy she had helped -- came over and gave her a cake. It said, "We Love You Liz."

"I hugged him, and got back in the car," she said. "And I cried and cried."

How the Race Was Lost

Political professionals know the rule: Live by the vote, die by the vote. It's not fair to whine if you lose -- that's how the game is played. Liz Patterson knew that, especially because her father, Olin Johnston, was governor for six years and U.S. senator for 20 years. He died in office.

Patterson, whose husband, Dwight, is a lawyer in Spartanburg, worked her way up in the traditional pattern: After early jobs with the Peace Corps, VISTA and Head Start, she was a member of the Greenville County Council and then the state Senate. Her own election to Congress in 1986 was something of an upset because she was a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, and because she was a woman. In each of the three elections before this month's, she had successively higher vote totals.

The only thing that distinguishes Liz Patterson from any other middle-class, 52-year-old matron you might meet at the Methodist church is her six-foot height. She wears conservative suits and flat shoes, and has a manner perceived as fairly low-key in Washington and occasionally "harsh and strident" in Greenville, according to one local political pundit. She allied herself with the Conservative Democratic Forum and the National Prayer Breakfast, kept teaching her Sunday school class, voted against the measure that would have allowed the District of Columbia to recognize same-sex unions. She is pro-choice but does not approve of abortion except in the case of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger.

Indeed, there were few traditional issues that an eager young conservative like Bob Inglis could really hit her on. She is not a liberal by any definition. However, she was vulnerable on taking PAC money from the banking industry; Inglis vowed to take "not one dime" from PACs. Their positions on abortion are close, but Inglis's wife, Mary Anne, sent out a letter to thousands of "Friends of Life," summoning their opposition to Patterson. He spent a year campaigning for term limits, and vowed to serve only three terms if he was elected. He began to pick at her -- always low-key, always in the context of talking about the issues -- in ways that she was not prepared to defend.

"She and George Bush have two things in common," said Charles Dunn, a Clemson University political science professor and a conservative Republican who is a longtime student of 4th District campaigns. "Both did not heed early warning signals they were in trouble and both ran terrible campaigns."

Dunn said the campaign should be viewed as an impressionist painting -- no single element produced the final picture. Inglis, a corporate lawyer, was meticulously organized -- he targeted the 11 key precincts he needed to win, he organized a cadre of young volunteers and utilized his commercial real estate contacts to put up 4-by-6 signs all over the district. He knocked on 5,000 doors, and he fashioned a tactically clever strategy that played to anti-incumbent feelings while constantly maintaining that he thought Patterson was a nice person.

"It's hard for people to understand a $4 trillion national debt," he said in a telephone interview. "But they understand, by golly, that they {members of Congress} are covering up cocaine sales. ... We had a successful combination -- an attack that was not a personal attack. She's gone along with the corrupt leadership, made no effort to change it. That's a winning case."

Patterson said Inglis ran a stealth campaign -- hid the financial support he expected to get from the national Republican committees, hit her with unjustified negative attacks too late for her to respond, downplayed his abortion position and then slaughtered her with the rocks from the Christian Coalition's slingshot. "Of course the campaign was not everything it should have been," she said. "But his was a negative campaign."

Neither Inglis nor Dunn thinks the Christian Coalition leafleting made the winning difference. "The Christian Coalition had little or nothing to do with it," said Dunn. "They're claiming credit because they need to. ... Liz ran a campaign that was almost invisible. Her signs were up late, they didn't know some precinct boundaries had changed. ... One problem was that she was so moderate she was hard to define. Nobody thought she would lose."

Breakfast Alone

There are some things about being in Congress that Liz Patterson will not miss. She found the two-year terms frustrating, because "you had to spend too much time responding to your opponent and not enough time getting things done."

But she'll miss her friends in the textile caucus, the Thursday morning prayer group and the lady at Sherrill's Bakery, where she bought doughnuts for her staff. She winced slightly as she remembered how she used to see a former member of Congress in there, having breakfast by himself.

Now she's a former member of Congress.

Patterson's town house on Capitol Hill will be for sale right after the inauguration. She wants to help run the South Carolina delegation to the inaugural festivities -- something she did years ago when Lyndon Johnson was elected.

Patterson commuted to Washington every Tuesday morning while she was a member, leaving her husband and daughter (who turned 16 on Election Day) in Spartanburg until she returned late Thursday. Most of the time she left three nights' worth of dinners behind for them, which she prepared on Sundays after teaching Sunday school and going to whatever local functions were required. (Her two sons were away in school.)

"One thing I do regret is never accepting any White House invitations, except one picnic. I wanted Dwight to be able to have that experience with me, but it never worked out that he could. I wish I'd done that. ... And I was so looking forward to working with a Democratic administration."

She plans to teach, possibly work toward a master's degree, maybe even run for governor. Meanwhile she wants to do more church work, get involved at the grass-roots level the way she was before. She cannot, at this point, envision another congressional race.

"I've always said I take one day at a time," she said. Yesterday she was in a Veterans Day parade in Union County, and people came out of the crowd to hand her roses and waved signs that said "We Love You Liz."

"I don't guess the word for what I feel is bitter," she said. "It's more disappointment in the people of this district that I worked so hard for. That they would vote for somebody they know hardly anything about. I'm afraid it was a vote against, rather than a vote for someone. And that hurts."