John Kerry returned to his default job in the Senate yesterday. The man who had hoped to be president is upbeat and optimistic and thrilled to be back -- which we know because this is what he tells reporters who ask.

He turns up for a morning strategy meeting with his Democratic colleagues. He whispers something to Sen. Pat Leahy in the doorway of the Old Senate Chamber room. He hugs Sens. Joe Lieberman and Jon Corzine as the oak doors close behind him. This is how Kerry spends most of his back-to-work day: cloistered, avoiding any semblance of fuss.

It's been two weeks since Kerry lost to President Bush. "The votes have not all been counted in New Mexico and Ohio," says Kerry's campaign and Senate spokesman David Wade, who is waiting for Kerry outside the strategy meeting. "And if you believe some of what you read on the Internet. . . . "

Wade is referring to the litany of conspiracy theories about voting irregularities. He says this while rolling his eyes. Message: Kerry is back at work.

After the election, Kerry took consolation calls from Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon, among others. His Secret Service detail is gone (replaced, for the time being, by two Capitol Police officers). So is the massive staff and crowds that come with being a vehicle for so much hope and loathing.

Kerry is, at best, the third-ranking fuss of the day -- and that's just in the Senate. Harry Reid, who was elected Senate minority leader yesterday, is at the center of a cluster of 20 reporters outside the meeting. Arlen Specter was ambushed by 50 after a series of meetings in which he courted the Republican leadership in an effort to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Meantime, Kerry darts out of the Democratic strategy meeting and beelines up a private stairwell to his private hideaway office. He will spend the next three hours there, do a smattering of Boston TV interviews (asked about a 2008 run, he tells the Fox News affiliate, "It is so premature to be thinking about something that far down the road. What I've said is I'm not opening any doors, I'm not shutting any doors") and order Chinese food (shrimp with broccoli, green beans, rice). He meets with his policy legislative staff and discusses energy and health-care issues. He has a brief meeting with defeated minority leader Tom Daschle.

He skips the weekly Democratic policy luncheon in the Lyndon Johnson Room. John Edwards says a few words in his stead, as he did on election night.

Kerry no longer wears the makeup he needed for the constant campaign TV appearances. He has the baggy-eyed look of someone who is getting a lot of sleep after not getting enough. If it's possible to move fast but without urgency, this is what Kerry's gait betrays.

Kerry says nothing about his state of mind, except that he is "great," leaving his Democratic colleagues to testify to his well-being. "He seems like he's in good spirits," says Barack Obama, the incoming senator from Illinois. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer, among others, say Kerry is doing fine and did himself proud.

Kerry emerges from his office just before 3 p.m. He walks quickly down a corridor, trailed by four reporters and two photographers, and reiterates that he's thrilled to be back at work.

He parks himself in a senators-only elevator and is asked, again, if it's nice to be back at work. "It's a privilege to represent the people of Massachusetts," he says.

He goes to his office in the Russell Building and calls a "thank you" meeting for his 40 staffers, many of whom volunteered on his presidential campaign.

"You gave me your heart, your soul, and even your vacation time to try and change the country," Kerry tells them, "and I want you to be proud." They give him a two-minute standing ovation.

Kerry is the first losing presidential nominee from a major party since Michael Dukakis who has a job to return to.

"You gotta throw yourself into Senate issues and don't look back," says Sen. John McCain, a friend of Kerry who supported Bush. McCain says he tried to call Kerry after the election, but Kerry didn't call back.

Kerry appears on the Senate floor for a vote just after 5 p.m. He shakes hands and repairs to a corner with Edwards for several minutes. Kerry speaks, intently, for most of the conversation while Edwards nods and pats Kerry on the forearm.

There is a procession of well-wishers, mostly Democrats, but also a smattering of Republicans. Trent Lott walks over, calls Kerry a "celebrity," and they talk for five minutes.

Kerry seems to be doing most of the talking, but few of his words are audible in the gallery.

A snatch of one conversation can be heard. "Stay strong," Kerry tells Reid, the new minority leader. "Stay strong."

Two weeks after losing his presidential bid, John Kerry returned to the Senate, sans makeup and Secret Service.