WASHINGTON -- With a "full heart" and no regrets, a gracious, exceedingly composed Bob Dole faced the crumbling of his long-held presidential dreams last night -- a defeat that almost certainly marked the close of an illustrious political career.
"I've never been prouder in my life than to have been the Republican nominee for president of the United States," Dole told a wildly cheering crowd of several thousand Republicans who jammed into a hotel ballroom here last night, many of them in tears and with their heads on each others shoulders.
They greeted the 73-year-old Republican with shouts of "Thank you, Bob," and "We love you, Bob."
In a 10-minute concession speech, Dole admitted, "It hurts to lose an election." But he urged the young people in the crowd to stay involved in the political process.
And, invoking a line from his campaign, he said that because of the support he'd received, "I am still the most optimistic man in America."
Dole said he'd called Bill Clinton to congratulate him, eliciting boos and sharp anti-Clinton remarks from the crowd.
"No, wait a minute," he said, trying to quiet the suddenly belligerent crowd. "I've said repeatedly in this campaign that the president is my opponent, not my enemy. And I wish him well, and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America. That's what the race is about."
Even in defeat, Dole displayed his trademark wit. With a smile, he told the crowd that, on the way down to the ballroom, he was thinking that "tomorrow, for the first time in my life, I don't have anything to do."
But on a more serious note, he reminisced about his beginning days in politics in the early 1950s when, after taking a seat in the state legislature, he said he would "sit back and watch for a few days and then stand up for what is right."
"Anyone who wonders what my plans may be in the future," he added, "I'm going to sit back for a few days, then I'm going to start standing up for what I think is right for America."
Dole was flanked by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter, Robin, and a number of his aides and GOP leaders, including Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Dole would "not soon be forgotten in American political history," said McCain, who traveled with Dole in the last days of his 96-hour campaign finale. "I'm proud that we have a man whose character counts, who is a man of integrity, a man of honor, a man of decency."
McCain said Dole, even in defeat, would be remembered as "the longest serving Republican leader in history." He added that, if the Clinton administration were smart, it would "use him in a national security role."
As a rock band played everything from "Jail House Rock" to the "Macarena" (to which no one danced), the crowd watched the results on large video screens, taking comfort in the states, such as Texas, that ended up in Dole's corner and cheering wildly.
The Republicans, many of whom expected Dole's loss, also said they found silver linings in the congressional races that were falling their way, and in the hope that Clinton would not get 50 percent of the popular vote.
"We may not have a 100 percent victory," conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams said, trying to stir the crowd, "but we will do enough to do damage over the next four years."
Many were bitterly critical of Clinton and predicted a rocky four years for him marked by constant investigations of various controversies.
Coming off of his final 96-hour campaign blitz, Dole said yesterday afternoon that he felt good that he had given this bid for the presidency -- his third -- everything he had.
"We have been on a long, uplifting journey across America," he said in his hometown of Russell, Kan., surrounded by his wife, daughter and several dozen relatives. "We've given our all with a full heart."
Asked about his campaign, he said, "Whether you win or lose, you always have some things you might have done. But my view was, is and will be, you look ahead, you don't look back. Whatever happens, you keep looking ahead."
Along with his wife and daughter, Dole returned to Russell
yesterday to vote before flying to Washington on his private plane, the "Citizen Ship," to wait out the election night results.
"This is it," he said after emerging from the flag-bedecked First Christian Church in Russell, the small town he credits as the source of his strong sense of values and integrity and where he has returned time and time again to kick off campaigns.
"We've done the best, and we've worked hard. And the last thing you do is vote and I voted for myself."
Dole said he had cast votes at the church "a lot of times before, but I never voted for myself for president. I was a little nervous."
Jack Kemp, the GOP vice presidential nominee, spent the day and night in California, and did not join Dole for the election night activities here.
Dole's defeat capped a political career of nearly half a century, beginning with his election to the Kansas legislature in 1950, and continuing through the U.S. House and Senate where he toiled for 35 years.
Last night's gathering at the Ramada Renaissance hotel was a )) tribute to Dole, almost surely the last World War II-era politician to run for the White House and the oldest man to ever try to become president.
"In politics you take your shots, and he took a good shot," said Jim Cardaci, a mortgage banker from Rockville. "I'd feel a lot worse for him if he had chosen not to make the race at all. I think we can all hold our heads high."
Pub Date: 11/06/96