Standing in the crisp air at a midnight rally Tuesday in Prescott, Arizona, after a seven-state dash around the country, McCain began to fight back tears as she introduced her husband on one of his final campaign stops.
As she spoke, Mark Salter, McCain’s confidant and senior adviser, paced amongst the crowd with his head down. Later in the day, as exit polling data began to trickle in, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top strategist, began to speak in the past tense.
They knew, as just about everyone in McCain’s entourage knew, that the end was near. Still, even up until Tuesday night, no one wanted to admit it, even his supporters.
Karen Eiserloh, a financial planner, got misty eyed as she listened to McCain give his concession speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, where hundreds had gathered hoping for a victory. She wanted to believe that at the end of the evening she would raise her glass of red wine to McCain.
But even she knew better.
“I felt during the last week or so, that this may be the case,” Eiserloh said referring to an Obama victory.
“But I saw McCain at the polling station this morning and I thought, ‘Maybe he can pull through this.’”
For his part, McCain remained characteristically feisty, upbeat and defiant throughout the day. But when it came time to concede, he was gracious to the man who defeated him.
“In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance,” McCain said, before a silent, teary-eyed crowd. “But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”
Though the closing chapter of McCain’s bid for the presidency wasn’t concluded until he delivered his concession just after 11p.m., the somber mood throughout the day and into the evening among McCain’s campaign aides—and even the candidate himself—signaled that they knew what was to come.
On the campaign trail earlier in the day, Schmidt came to the back of McCain’s campaign plane and talked to the reporters as if the campaign were already over.
“We did our absolute best in this campaign under really difficult circumstances,” Schmidt said. “We had some tough cards to play all the way through and we hung in there all the way.”
“It is highly doubtful that anyone will ever have to run in a worse political climate than the one John McCain had to run in this year,” he said, adding “on a personal level, I’m very proud to have had the chance to be associated with John McCain.”
With the hours dwindling, even McCain made an unusual appearance to bid farewell to the press corps at the back of his plane.
“We've had a great ride, a great experience, it's full of memories that we will always treasure,” he said. “We’ve had a great time.”
Still, McCain supporters held out hope until all hope was gone.
“It’s quite frankly one of the worst nights of my life,” said Richard Brothers, the commissioner of employment security for the state of New Hampshire. “I really think John McCain is the greatest political candidate of my lifetime. I’ve been looking forward to this night for a long time, with a different outcome of course.”
Even after the final verdict was in and television networks announced that Obama had won, Kim Owens, a McCain volunteer in Arizona, stood still in disbelief.
“I absolutely thought he would win, despite all the media reports and the polling,” Owens said. “I thought people understood that we needed more than a myth. We needed a man.”
Eiserloh stuck around long enough to watch the man she wanted to send to the White House tell her and other believers like her to “not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe in the promise and greatness of America.”
“I still can’t believe it,” she said.
Then, she went home.