msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 11/3/2004 8:04:05 PM ET 2004-11-04T01:04:05

The ovations built as the chief players entered the hall Wednesday morning where Sen. John Kerry would abandon his quest to unseat President Bush.

First came Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry, his daughters, with Chris and Andre Heinz, his stepsons. Vanessa Kerry patted her heart with her hand several times while facing the crowd.

Then came the candidates’ wives, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elizabeth Edwards. Heinz Kerry gave the crowd the thumbs-up sign, and the two women hugged when they got to their seats.

Finally, the roar reached a climax when Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, entered the hall. Unlike at a campaign event, there was no music. As the crowd of supporters roared, Kerry put his hand over his heart and saluted.

“You just have no idea how warming and how generous that welcome is, your love is, your affection,” Kerry said after several minutes. “And I’m gratified by it.”

Every option considered
The emotional outpouring was the finale to a long, tense night during which Kerry and his staff weighed their chances and decided to concede the election.

Advisers and other sources, who spoke with NBC News and other organizations on condition of anonymity, described a painstaking review of all of Kerry’s options, including a possible legal challenge in Ohio that could have resulted in a protracted showdown reminiscent of the 2000 election.

“There was too much at stake” for a quick decision, one of the aides told NBC News.

Kerry now returns to the Senate, where he has represented Massachusetts for 20 years.

Edwards, however, chose not to run for re-election to his seat from North Carolina when he decided to seek the presidency himself. With his term ending in January, he faces a return to private life.

A senior Democrat familiar with the discussions in Boston told The Associated Press that it was Edwards who led the argument against conceding as the campaign staff’s talks continued deep into the night. The official said Edwards, a trial lawyer, wanted to make sure that all options were explored and that Democrats pursued them as thoroughly as Republicans would if their positions were reversed.

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When his turn came to address supporters Wednesday. Edwards vowed that “this fight has just begun.”

“We will carry on, and we will be with you every step of the way,” he promised. “This campaign may end today, but that battle for you rages on.”

Provisional ballots seen as long shot
An aide to Kerry told NBC News that Edwards’ view was shared by nearly all campaign officials, primarily because information regarding provisional ballots cast in Ohio was “sketchy.”

Video: Key to the White House

“We weren’t about to make a decision of the utmost importance without all the information,” the aide said.

But with Kerry trailing Bush by slightly more than 136,000 votes, the best hope to win the state, and thereby the White House, appeared to lie in provisional ballots. And there did not appear to be enough of them to hold any prospect of victory.

Provisional ballots are cast by voters whose registration records cannot be found at polling stations. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s secretary of state, estimated Tuesday night that as many as 175,000 provisional ballots may have been cast. But because a high percentage are typically disqualified for various reasons, the chances that Kerry could overtake Bush appeared long.

Kerry and his advisers also rejected the possibility of legal challenges to the Ohio vote. About 70 percent of ballots in the state were cast using the same punch cards that led to the Florida recount in 2000.

The group eventually broke for a few hours of sleep. But as the Democrats were stirring back to life, White House chief of staff Andrew Card declared Bush the winner at a party for supporters, and White House aides said the president was giving Kerry time to consider his next step.

As Kerry was making his decision, his Senate colleague from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy, who campaigned heavily for him over the past year, arrived at Kerry’s house with his wife, Victoria. Also spotted going in were Andre Heinz; David Thorne, Kerry’s longtime friend and former brother-in-law; and his brother, Cameron Kerry.

The aide who described the deliberations to NBC News said that as Card was speaking in Washington shortly after dawn, Kerry was briefed again on what the campaign had been able to learn about how many ballots there were and what Bush’s margin was.

Kerry asked “all the right questions” and decided to concede the race, the aide said. “It was not a long and drawn-out process.”

With a phone call, it’s over
Finally, one of the most expensive and bitterly contested races on record ended on a courteous note, when Kerry called Bush shortly after 11 a.m. ET. The president was in the Oval Office.

In their telephone exchange, Bush told Kerry, “I think you were an admirable, worthy opponent” who waged “one tough campaign,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “I hope you are proud of the effort you put in. You should be.”

McClellan said that when the three- to four-minute call was over, the president turned to his advisers and said Kerry had been “very gracious.”

Then came Kerry’s address, during which his voice tightened with emotion at several points. Around Faneuil Hall, campaign staff members, many of them in tears, traded hugs. Many of them had arrived ready to party the night before and were stunned to see their hopes dashed.

Moments before 2 p.m., Kerry and Edwards strode purposefully onto the stage. The candidate called on his supporters not to abandon their faith in the political process:

“The time will come, the election will come, when your work and your ballots will change the world, and it’s worth fighting for,” he said to applause.

By MSNBC.com’s Mike Brunker and Alex Johnson with NBC’s Becky Diamond, Carl Quintanilla and Felix Schein. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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