In the end, John F. Kerry finally found the warmth and passion he was often criticized for lacking, emotionally telling those who fought so hard for him that he wished he could "wrap you up in my arms and embrace each and every one of you."
In a speech as gracious as it was eloquent, the senator from Massachusetts ended his quest for the presidency on Wednesday afternoon, hours after it became painfully clear that all roads to the White House had closed for him.
"I'm sorry that we got here a little bit late and a little bit short," said Kerry, standing alone on a stage at historic Faneuil Hall, as staff members wept. "In America, it is vital that every vote count . . . but the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal fight. I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail."
After a two-year campaign that lurched from a sense of inevitability to despair and then back again, the end for Kerry came very quickly. Just before 11 a.m. Wednesday in the kitchen of Kerry's Beacon Hill townhouse, aides Bob Shrum and Mary Beth Cahill told him that the numbers would never add up for him in Ohio, his last hope -- that there were simply not enough ballots left to change the course of history.
"That's it," Kerry said. Then Kerry went into his study with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and called his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) -- and then President Bush to concede.
"We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need, the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together," Kerry said of his four-minute conversation with the president.
"We are required now to work together for the good of our country. In the days ahead, we must find common cause, we must join in common effort, without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion."
Kerry assured the people who supported him that their work "made a difference" and pledged to keep fighting for them.
"And building on itself . . . we go on to make a difference another day," he said. "I promise you that time will come. The time will come, the election will come when your work and your ballots will change the world. And it's worth fighting for."
Kerry and Edwards came out together at Faneuil Hall and stood before a 27-foot-wide oil painting depicting a historic Senate debate in 1830 between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne. Inscribed on the frame are Webster's famous words: "Liberty and Union, Now and Forever."
With family members watching from the first row, Edwards introduced Kerry, thanked supporters and pledged to keep working for them. "You can be disappointed, but you cannot walk away," he said. "This fight has just begun." Kerry the early favorite to win the Democratic nomination because of his service as a decorated Navy officer in the Vietnam War, his experienced staff and his ability to raise money -- both from donors and from his rich wife. Yet, for all his ambition, candidate Kerry struggled with boldly defining himself and his vision for the nation -- and even for his own party.
Kerry often appeared unsure of his platform and political strategy, watching in frustration as party leaders such as Al Gore and the media crowned former Vermont governor Howard Dean the front-runner.
After his campaign foundered for months, top-heavy with advisers, Kerry finally shook things up. He fired his campaign manager in late 2003, lent his campaign several million dollars and bet the nomination on a last stand in Iowa.
In a comeback worthy of the history books, Kerry stormed from behind to win the Iowa caucuses and went on to sweep through the primaries with only nominal opposition from Edwards, his future running mate. Almost overnight, Kerry quelled critics and emerged as a formidable challenger to Bush -- but one who could never shake concerns about his likeability, vision and consistency on major issues, especially Iraq.
Still, he tapped into a powerful anti-Bush movement sweeping big cities and college campuses around the country. He shattered party fundraising records and did what many once considered impossible -- eliminating the Republicans' historical edge in fundraising.
But for much of the year, Kerry offered contradictory views on Iraq, saying he supported the war but frequently criticizing it. In one of the most memorable -- and damaging -- lines of the campaign, Kerry seemed to capture the confusion by telling West Virginia voters in March, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." He was referring to money for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The line became a staple of Bush ads and speeches, and it allowed the Bush-Cheney campaign to effectively portray Kerry as an indecisive leader. Still, with casualties and chaos mounting in Iraq, Kerry ran even or ahead of Bush for much of the year and never felt pressured to changes his style or message.
Kerry told aides that as long as he could convince voters during the Democratic convention in July that he was an able and acceptable alternative to Bush as commander in chief, he could win. By that measure, Kerry's convention was a wild success, and he was widely praised for delivering a strong speech on national security, war service and patriotism. But he never made an effective case for Bush's defeat or an alternative direction on domestic policy.
The speech also has an unintended consequence. It opened the door for critics led by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to challenge the Democratic nominee's service in Vietnam and leadership role in the antiwar protests in the 1970s.
In a matter of a few weeks in August, the anti-Kerry veterans dominated cable news -- and, in some ways the campaign -- with relentless attacks on Kerry's credibility, providing the president a lift in the polls and forcing the Democrat to rethink his approach.
Kerry regained footing in September, in large part, by bringing in some of former president Bill Clinton's most talented advisers, sharpening his attacks and turning in what both sides considered powerful debate performances. He closed out the race with a relentless attack on Bush's credibility, decision making in Iraq and ability to win the war on terrorism -- and, all along, reassured aides this was what it would take to win.
By week's end, polling indicated, his strategy may have been working, as Kerry looked to be inching forward. Exit polls on Election Day showed Kerry leading in battleground states. When Kerry and Shrum rode to Kerry's house Tuesday night, after the candidate gave 38 eleventh-hour interviews to media in battleground states, Shrum told him, "I think you're going to make it." The two began drafting a victory speech -- but also a statement conceding the race to Bush.
Several hours later, the exuberance that gripped the campaign gave way to hours of grim assessments and high anxiety. Shrum said he started to get a "sinking feeling" when it became apparent that Republicans were showing strength in Florida and Ohio -- states that looked winnable earlier.
Senior campaign officials worked the phones all night, and by the final 8 a.m. staff meeting Wednesday the message was unmistakable. "We looked at the numbers, talked to people, in Ohio, talked to lawyers. . . . And it became clear that the likelihood of the provisional ballots exceeding the margin [they needed to win] was exceedingly low," adviser Tad Devine said.
Mostly everyone at Faneuil Hall seemed in a daze, not understanding how their assessments were so wrong. "Obviously, we missed something here," said Kerry's closest friend, David Thorne.
After the speech, many key staff members adjourned to a nearby Irish bar, Ned Devine's, to commiserate.
As for himself, Kerry offered no regrets:
"So with a grateful heart, I leave this campaign with a prayer that has even greater meaning to me now. And that prayer is very simple: God bless America."