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Washington (CNN) -- We were somewhere down South in the back half of October 1996. I believe we were in a theater. I remember thinking how terrible the lighting was, how small and deflated the crowd.
I remember the look on the candidate's face.
Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was on stage with Heather Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America. She signed, "I love you" to the crowd. Then he signed it, too.
They said what they were supposed to say, but there was something wordless encapsulated in that moment.
I remember for the first time thinking, "Dole knows he's going to lose."
I have covered campaigns since 1984. It is the losing ones I remember most.
Sure, Dole had been the consistent underdog in his bid to unseat then-President Bill Clinton. But politicians are like gamblers, wired to believe they will beat the odds.
Unlike gamblers, though, when presidential nominees run out of chips, they can't fold and go home.
As it turns out, late October is about when Dole and company knew the game was lost but not over. One top aide tells stories of a dispirited Dole who said during a West Coast swing that he was done and wanted to go home. The source says Dole was eventually persuaded to keep moving with a nonstop, cross-country trek to gin up some campaign excitement and try to help down-ballot Republicans.
But a senior Dole strategist told me this week that it was the candidate's idea to lead this last hurrah.
'Kinda says it all about the man'
"We knew we were going to lose ... and Dole came up with the selfless idea to do the 96-hour fly-around and to help save the Congress. Kinda says it all about the man."
The result was a 96-hour victory tour. Staff wore 96-hour victory T-shirts, and the press received caps that read "96 hours until the White House Beat."
We flew crazily around the country, visited bowling alleys and diners in the dead of night, Dairy Queens and factories by day, interrupted by "hygiene stops" at various hotels. It all led to a final sentimental stop in Dole's hometown of Russell, Kansas, where he voted on Election Day.
The Senate and House stayed in Republican hands. It was perhaps some solace for Dole, who exited the political scene on November 5, 1996. He opened his Election Night speech in typically wry, painfully truthful fashion: "I was thinking on the way down in the elevator -- tomorrow will be the first time in my life I don't have anything to do."
Flash forward 12 years. Sen. John McCain, of a different generation but like Dole an old warrior, knew his political battle was lost as early as mid-September, according to former top aide Steve Schmidt.
"With the '(on the) right track' number in the country dropping to 6% and the stock market diving, we were the incumbent party. The blame would default to the Republicans. We knew at that point it was not survivable."
In contrast to the Dole campaign, losing was never spoken about out loud in Camp McCain.
"I never said anything to him," Schmidt says, "and he never said anything to me, but everyone was reality-based."
There was never a question in the McCain camp that the candidate would be out there fighting until the end of what everyone knew was coming. Anything less than a full-on effort can shave a point or two off the percentages of down-ballot candidates.
However long a candidate or his staff has to prepare mentally for defeat, it is still a blow of surprising proportions. Those who have been through it liken it to having a terminally ill loved one -- you know what's coming, but it doesn't help.
'We lost. It's so hard'
Schmidt describes Election Night with McCain like this: "When you are at that moment in the suite 'we lost Ohio. We lost North Carolina.' You know it's over. We lost. It's so hard."
In a graceful concession speech bowing to the sweep of history, McCain congratulated the nation's first African-American president and told his supporters that "we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours."
If there is something worse than campaigning for weeks without hope, it may be losing in overtime.
Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote in a presidential election ultimately untangled 35 days later with a controversial Supreme Court decision. Gore yielded, saying while he disagreed with the court, he accepted the decision "for the sake of unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession."
Four years later, John Kerry went to bed in Boston on Election Night believing that Ohio absentee votes would make him the president. It was clear by morning he was wrong.
Elated by early exit polling on Election Night, Camp Kerry was both stunned and devastated. But the candidate insisted he didn't want to drag things out since there was no chance of winning: He ended his campaign at Faneuil Hall in Boston just hours after a meeting of close aides.
"I'm sorry," he told the crowd, "that we got here a little bit late and a little bit short."
People often say that candidates seem different -- better, bigger, more likable in their goodbye moments than at any point in the election process.
Kerry was seen as removed, unemotional and often peeved to be so challenged by a man he didn't believe should be president.
There was none of that in his parting words: "I wish that things had turned out a little differently. But in an American election, there are no losers, because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans."
Coulda, shoulda, wouldas and a world of hurt
As poetic and gracious as the losers generally are, there is bitterness over the slash-and-burn nature of campaigns that lasts for years, anger over lost moments, frustration over coulda, shoulda, wouldas and a world of hurt.
One source in a losing campaign called the concession speech "the highest point of acting, but the lowest point of sincerity."
Still, they do seem different at the end, maybe because it's not about them.
The finale of a losing campaign might be acting on the personal level, but it's real democracy on a grand scale.
In saluting Dole, Gore, Kerry and McCain, Schmidt explains, "You have people who were all senators deeply rooted in the best aspects of that institution, duty-bound to play their part in ensuring a smooth and peaceful transition of power."
Think about it -- the first person who addresses the winner as Mr. President-elect is the loser. It is the loser who offers the first legitimization of the election with a concession speech, beginning a series of events that ends in the swearing-in of a president in January.
Grace is easy in the winning. In some ways, democracy shines most in the losing.