PHOENIX // As graceful in conceding defeat as his campaign could be vicious, John McCain on Tuesday ended a pursuit of the White House that has spanned decades, calling on his supporters to rally behind Barack Obama, the president-elect, to get the "country moving again". Speaking to thousands of voters, donors and campaign staff gathered in the Arizona capital, Mr McCain acknowledged his race against Mr Obama had been tough and at times bitter.
Yet he congratulated his rival on becoming the country's first African-American president, saying the United States had moved away from the "cruel and frightful bigotry" of its past. "I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face," Mr McCain, 72, said to loud applause. "Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans." The former navy pilot and Vietnam War prisoner described running for president as "the great honour of my life", and thanked the US public "for giving me a fair hearing".
Analysts praised Mr McCain's efforts at unifying citizens of a divided country. "What a difficult speech for him to make," said Fred Solop, who chairs the political affairs department at Northern Arizona University. "And yet it was very dignified." Mr McCain at times had to silence supporters who booed and jeered when he mentioned Mr Obama or his running mate, Joe Biden. For hours after polling booths around the country closed, Republican faithful who gathered at the Arizona Biltmore, a luxury hotel, refused to accept vote results as the inevitability of Mr McCain's defeat grew.
"We'll show the polls," Will Shaddock, a campaign official, shouted into the microphone after the key state of Pennsylvania fell to Mr Obama. "We won't let them show us." Wearing McCain-Palin victory pins and T-shirts that read "Country First", McCain supporters seemed to suspend reality until they could deny the obvious no longer. Their cheers became less strident and the queue for drinks at the bar lengthened.
For Mr McCain, who was first mentioned by the press as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 1988 when the Republican nominee was George H W Bush, the night ended a long quest for the White House for a man often divided between ideals and ambition. First elected as a legislator in the 1980s, Mr McCain quickly developed a reputation for challenging the party leadership and reaching across party lines on such issues as campaign finance and fighting the tobacco industry.
That independent streak delighted Arizona voters, who repeatedly handed him sweeping victories, but made the top spot in the Republican Party an elusive goal. Mr McCain battled and lost an ugly primary against George W Bush in 2000 and was frequently touted as a possible running mate for the Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004. Conspicuous for not getting a mention in Mr McCain's concession speech on Tuesday was the sitting US president, whose management of the country many blame for the Republican defeat and with whom Mr McCain has a frosty relationship.
Mr McCain did pay tribute to his running mate, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, although some of those around him have suggested her lack of experience damaged his attempt to reach the White House. Mr McCain called her "one of the best campaigners I have ever seen, and an impressive new voice in our party for reform". Pundits and political scientists said the Republican ticket's negative attacks on Mr Obama appeared to have turned off many voters, among them moderate Republicans. Many also said Mr McCain's sometimes erratic messages failed to win public confidence that he could steer the country through the current economic turmoil.
"We fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours," said a solemn Mr McCain, drawing shouts of "No!" and "We love you, John" from the crowd. Ever the soldier, Mr McCain fought his campaign until the 11th hour, even making stops on election day in the neighbouring states of Colorado and New Mexico, imploring his supporters to get to the voting booths. "Get your neighbours to the polls, drag them there if you have to," he told voters in Grand Junction, Colorado. "I need your help for us to win this."
But even in the day, it sounded like he was formulating his concession speech. "I didn't live a day - in good times or bad - that I didn't thank God for the privilege of serving the United States of America," he said in Grand Junction, adding: "This is still a country worth fighting for." He lost both states. Analysts and supporters praised the determination and grit of a candidate who would have been the oldest man elected president had he prevailed.
"He fought a helluva fight," said Trent Franks, an Arizona congressman. "He has shown us how to be energetic and how to campaign at any age." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org