What would a night of political suspense be without a plate of cold cauliflower? In a thousand look-alike hotels across the nation, in a thousand banquet halls decked out in Election Day red, white and blue, there were, it is safe to report, identical trays of spongy-looking vegetables laid out over crisp white tablecloths.

An hour before the polls closed tonight in Maryland, the cauliflower arrived as ordained on a mirrored platter in the Liberty Ballroom, the smaller of two ballrooms in the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Baltimore, where the party celebrating Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's run for governor was taking shape.

In all its particulars, this promised to be a classic of the genre. For one thing, it was the final event in a grueling a campaign. For another, the star attraction was a Kennedy.

Ultimately, it was not a good night for the Kennedys in Maryland. Townsend was beaten by her Republican opponent, Rep. Bob Ehrlich. For all the hoopla over the campaign, all the high hopes at the start of the evening, it all came crashing down fairly rapidly. By 11:20, Townsend was at the podium in the ballroom, flanked by those legions of supporters you always see crowded around the candidate at night's end, and giving a dry-eyed concession.

"Unfortunately, we fell short," Townsend said, her husband David and four daughters pressed in tightly around her. On the far end of the wide rostrum stood her mother, Ethel. "But we stood up for our beliefs," she added.

The crowd booed when she congratulated Ehrlich, a reaction that seemed to genuinely annoy her. "You know what, you guys? I love you, but we have to move on," she said.

It was not a great speech, but it was delivered with brio and composure -- the kind of speech that pundits will undoubtedly describe as "gracious." It's nothing we haven't heard myriad times before, all part of the formulaic ritual that ends every campaign, in every election cycle.

The scene in the ballroom was duplicated in every corner of the country. In all those banquet halls, jumbo-screen televisions shimmered with the images of Paula and Dan and Brit and Tom. A thousand local bands struck up music that partygoers had to shout over. A thousand photographers bird-dogged a thousand press secretaries in the hallways of those hotels for the quintessentially pointless yet absolutely indispensable picture: the candidate tucked away in a suite upstairs, watching the returns.

We can never be totally certain of the outcome on election night, but boy, do we know the drill. No exit poll is required for a sneak preview of the generic sequence of events that unfolds in that most ritualized of American electoral traditions, the victory party.

As with Townsend, it's not always a victory party, of course. More than half of all victory parties are actually defeat parties, and quite a few turn out to be never-had-a-prayer parties. Still, in every election cycle the pattern is repeated from the last cycle, a minor local pageant awash in klieg lights and Beefeater gin in which the cast and the props are dependably the same: The camera crews with their tripods. The operatives with their earpieces. The partisans with their Heinekens.

The Liberty Ballroom was a lot smaller than one would have imagined would be necessary, the kind of room built for a medium-size bar mitzvah, not a celebration fit for a Democratic dynasty. It looked, in fact, as if it might not be big enough to hold all the Kennedys. Then again, the room may have been chosen for all the right TV reasons. On the small screen, wall-to-wall people is a lot more impressive than a palatial hall that you could run a bowling ball through.

The Kennedys, after all, are the first family of election night. Townsend herself has been a part of some heady ones, and some truly horrific ones: Her father Bobby was shot to death, it must be recalled, on the night of one such celebration, held on the occasion of his winning the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in California. That she bears such a striking resemblance to her dad, down to the toothy smile, only heightened the sense of these gatherings not merely as milestones in the political history of a country, but in the history of a political clan.

"Folks, she's going to be here in three minutes," a press aide advised photographers at about 8:15. Out the ballroom doors the shutterbugs shuffled, as a security man stationed at the doors shook his head. "She won't be here for a while," he said with some certainty, adding that he imagined that the announcement had been made "to wind up the crowd."

Three minutes would indeed turn into an hour before the candidate, a slender figure in a dark suit and beaming visage, would emerge with her family from a red sedan in the cold rain to shouts of "KKT! KKT!" Applause from the crowd, flashes from the strobes. One could try to read the candidate's expression -- was that anxiety in her eyes, or plain old fatigue? Her supporters hooted some more, then came more cries of "KKT." As quickly as she appeared, she was swallowed up by a swarm of guards and ushered into a hotel elevator. To get to her room. To wait.

Waiting is the gerund of choice at a victory party. Waiting for the candidate. Waiting for the numbers. Waiting for the speech. Practically the only thing you don't have to wait for is cauliflower. Over at the crudite platter, it had hardly been touched.

"That's the situation here, Andy, the party has started," Lou Davis, a reporter for the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, said into the camera, after the polls had closed. The party certainly had started; in the absence of anything substantive to report, Davis still had to say something during the network breaks for local news. The truth was, a victory party was a very tough place to learn much of anything. The music was so loud, you couldn't even hear Jeff Greenfield's analysis on the big screen.

Around the press platform, a two-tiered structure no more than 30 paces from the podium, a few party functionaries and local candidates passed the time, recycling cliches. "Extreme weather can have a negative impact on voter turnout," one explained dryly to Laura Evans, a reporter with Fox's Washington station. She was patient and polite, and still on the lookout for some real news.

By 10 o'clock the Liberty Ballroom was buzzing. All the advance hype seemed to be true. Townsend-Ehrlich was close; the networks were reporting that with half the precincts in, it was even. By 11, though, the results were moving in Ehrlich's favor and soon reality hit. There were no gasps. The end came in a hurry. Contrary to the mood one expects in a room filled with Kennedy loyalists, this was not an emotional crowd.

Townsend herself exited chin up. Her words did not glow with marvelous oratory. They were more like the words the script calls for. She thanked her mother, her supporters, even her "Uncle Teddy," the senior senator from Massachusetts. And looked to the future. "I have no doubt that in the end our ideals will prevail," she said, and left the ballroom. The cauliflower had already made its exit.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend concedes with husband David, daughters Kerry and Meaghan.Gubernatorial hopeful Kathleen Kennedy Townsend last night when there was still hope, arriving at the Wyndham Hotel in Baltimore.Also at the Wyndham were supporters Floraine Applefeld, Katherine Chin, Peta Richkus and Randy Rosencrantz.