Geraldine A. Ferraro, her dreams of serving as the nation's first female vice president crushed by President Reagan's reelection juggernaut, tonight claimed a different kind of victory as a symbol that "women will never again be second-class citizens."
In a midnight concession speech at the New York Hilton before 1,500 supporters, Ferraro said, "This is a moment to rejoice in our democracy."
"All of us can go to sleep tonight confident that we did everything we could to win this election," she said. "We fought hard, we gave it our best and we made a difference," she said in a firm, measured tone as her mother, three children and husband stood by.
Ferraro had spent the final hours of her candidacy in a 44th-floor suite polishing the swan song she had hoped never to deliver. Hours before the polls closed, however, Ferraro's aides had told her that exit polling guaranteed an overwhelming Reagan reelection, but the magnitude of the Republican victory appeared to leave the even those aides slightly dazed.
"It's going to take a long, long time for Ferraro to regroup, decompress and then think about the future," senior political adviser Anne Wexler said.
Ferraro concluded her four-month political odyssey today in her native New York by voting, praying and awaiting the results.
After an arduous 12,000-mile final campaign week, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee returned to Queens Monday night and arose at dawn to cast a ballot for herself and running mate Walter F. Mondale at Public School 101 in Forest Hills, a few blocks from her home.
Ferraro emerged from the voting booth, gave a thumbs-up sign, admitted to being "a little bit tired," and said she had run "a credible campaign showing that women can run for national office, that women should be considered for national office . . . , and I think that makes this country stronger."
She then attended an early Roman Catholic mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Queens and she took holy communion with the congregation.
The remainder of Ferraro's day was relatively mundane, as she sought to while away the hours of waiting.
In what was billed as a final show of solidarity with the senior citizens Ferraro has wooed since her nomination in July, the candidate spent half an hour at the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Center in Queens.
"When I came in, I heard you singing 'Roll Out the Barrel,' and I thought you'd noticed I've gained 10 pounds," she joked.
The three-term member of Congress, who forfeited her House seat to run on the Democratic ticket, also spent several hours at her congressional district office on Queens Boulevard. Aides said she answered mail, signed letters and handled a dozen other minor bureaucratic matters that had been postponed during the final frenzy of the campaign.
"It's a good way to pass the time," Wexler said.
Beyond the paramount question of whether the underdog Democrats would recapture the White House with Ferraro the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency, political observers here were preoccupied today with a pair of ancillary issues.
First was how Ferraro's presence on the ticket affected the Democrats in New York, which, as expected, was captured by Reagan and Vice President Bush. Having failed in her bid for the vice presidency, Ferraro is considered a likely opponent in 1986 for Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), and today's returns offered the first glimpse, albeit inconclusive, of her statewide appeal.
Second was a larger question of how effectively Ferraro's candidacy lured women voters to the Democrats.
Particularly in the closing weeks of the campaign, Ferraro made an overt pitch for gender solidarity by appealing to "this bond that exists between us."
"It appears that all groups, across the board, supported President Reagan," said campaign manager John Sasso, who last week had predicted, "We'll win among women."
But Ferraro's aides discounted the possibility that her failure to lure more women voters away from Reagan would adversely affect either party's consideration of nominating a woman for national office.
"Women are not monolithic. They obviously voted for many things, probably primarily economic," Wexler said. "I think a vice-presidential candidate can help the ticket on the margins in a tight race. But when the numbers are as broad as they are here, I don't think it makes any difference."
Partly to avoid the predicted Republican landslide and partly out of simple pride, the Ferraro campaign roared at breakneck speek in the final week of the campaign, hopscotching from state to state, high school gymnasium to gymnasium.
As it became increasingly evident just how steep the uphill battle was, Ferraro appeared to emphasize those beliefs closest to her heart. She spoke, often with emotion, of the importance of her three children and her husband, John A. Zaccaro, all of whom traveled with her during the final frenetic, transcontinental blitzkrieg.
Monday night at Marymount Manhattan College here, in her last appearance of the campaign, Ferraro choked back tears while publicly thanking her mother, Antonetta, "from the bottom of my heart."
She also said, "I've never cared more about anything, except my family, than winning this election."
Ferraro's staff, which often resembled a band of merry pranksters on the campaign trail, was unrepentantly jovial to the end.
During a harrowing, high-speed bus ride fraught with near collisions in Manhattan Monday night, issues director Steven Engelberg casually asked the frightened press corps, "Everybody bring their dental records?"
As the press responded with a chorus of "Amazing Grace," press secretary Francis O'Brien commented, "The nice thing about this is I'll leave this world thinking we won."