PHOENIX — You got the feeling — whether it was all the guys in cowboy hats, the kids dressed up as Uncle Sam or the innumerable Sarah Palin doppelgängers in attendance — that John McCain's election-night party was less about celebrating than it was about creating some sort of alternate reality.
This was probably because Tuesday night's actual reality was a decidedly dour affair for Republicans everywhere. In the days leading up to the election, McCain trailed Democrat Barack Obama in just about every poll you could find. After leaping out to an early lead in electoral votes, states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia began to slip away, and the rout was on. Dems gained a clear majority in the U.S. Senate too — winning, at press time, 17 of 35 contested seats — and by night's end, even the pundits on Fox News were having a difficult time locating the silver lining in anything.
So instead, the revelers at the Arizona Biltmore decided to cocoon themselves from the outside world, ignoring punditry, damning data and basically acting as if nothing were amiss. Which was why, as most major networks began to call Pennsylvania for Obama, the two massive TV screens inside the Biltmore's Frank Lloyd Wright Ballroom switched off their live feeds and began airing a steady stream of McCain political ads. Soon after, the Phoenix Boys Choir — looking downright Hogwart-ian in their matching blazers and striped ties — took the stage and began singing "God Bless America."
It was why, even as CNN, MSNBC and ABC all had Obama surging to a 60-point lead in electoral votes, the in-house tally provided by the McCain camp still had their man leading by 18, or why, during a rah-rah speech, Arizona Congressman John Shadegg shouted, "We're not going to let the polls defeat us. We're going to defeat the polls. ... We're going to win!"
And only in an alternate world could the logic used to introduce performer Hank Williams Jr. — which went, in paraphrase, "If football is America's greatest sport, and John McCain is our next president, then our next performer is the greatest country singer in America" — make any semblance of sense.
That the Biltmore itself was otherworldly — designed by Wright, hidden among golf courses and gated mansions — only added to the evening's surrealism. Make no mistake about it: As the night wore on, most in the room weren't oblivious to the events happening outside the Biltmore. As soon as Ohio was called for Obama, the mood in the room shifted seismically, but still, there was a hope, a belief that nothing outside of the room was real, and that somehow, someway, McCain was going to pull this thing off — overwhelming odds to the contrary.
"Early on, I felt really good, because [McCain] was ahead, he had won some states, but it's not looking so good right now. So I started drinking," Bethany Forme, 22, said. "But you have to wait until it's an official call though, because sometimes they'll call things without them being official. You can't assume anything yet though, just like the 2004 election. ... I don't want to see him concede, because I'm just going to have to move to Australia if Obama gets elected."
"You never know. ... He's winning a lot of electoral votes right now, and we haven't gotten to the western states yet, and he's very popular in those states, so we don't know," Audrey Kopsa, 29, added. "I have a feeling it's going to go late into the night and early into the morning. We're not really going to know where we're going to stand, and McCain's always been known for coming from behind, so we're hopeful for that."
Only, it didn't go late into the night. By 8 p.m. PT, McCain's campaign was losing steam, and talk inside the ballroom shifted to more conciliatory tones — "Don't believe the media; there are still plenty of votes to be counted" being a popular one. By 9 p.m., it was lost, and talk turned to concession. The Republican's once VIP-only election-night address from the Biltmore's Squaw Peak Lawn was suddenly opened to everyone, and for the first time, reality began to seep into the picture.
But it wasn't until 9:18 p.m. PT, when McCain finally conceded — speaking from a stage that looked like something from a Michael Bay film and flanked by his wife, Cindy; his running mate, Sarah Palin; and her husband, Todd — that the alternate reality ended. Obama had won the presidency, and no amount of men in cowboy hats could change that fact.
The crowd on the lawn was murmuring and slightly angry. The supporters booed Obama's name each time McCain mentioned it, called to see the president-elect's birth certificate and hissed at the mere mention of working with their new commander in chief to make this country strong once again. It seemed that some differences were too deep to be mended on this night.
And after McCain's 10-minute speech ended, his supporters headed back out into a world that was profoundly — and historically — changed. Heroic music surged over loudspeakers, McCain and his wife embraced, and the entire Republican ticket waved farewell. It was just like the ending to a Hollywood movie, a fact not lost on one Mac backer.
"It's kind of sad. ... Everybody around us worked really hard in support of our candidate, so it's a somber feeling. Almost like a funeral," James Rate, 22, sighed. "The Republican Party now needs to reconnect to young voters. The Democrats beat them at that game, and — sorry, they're playing the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' theme. That's awesome. It's an inspiring end to all this, I guess. I feel like going out and doing some pirate things now."
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