BOSTON – Sen. John Kerry and his aides thought he would be spending the morning after Election Day preparing to take over the presidency. Instead, he found himself deciding whether to wage a court battle with the state of Ohio, and facing an uncertain political future.

With his candidacy nearly left for dead more than once on his way to this moment, Kerry ended his quest for the White House able to brag that he had won 4 million more votes than any other Democratic presidential candidate.

His closest advisers say that accomplishment will allow him to return to the Senate as a statesman and a leader, someone who can unite a fractured party left leaderless by the defeat of Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Still unclear is whether Kerry might try to replace Daschle as Democratic leader. Aides said it is too early to tell but that other options are under consideration, such as forming a think tank or a leadership PAC.

Most important, advisers said, Kerry wants to remain a voice for the middle class.

“I will never forget you and I’ll never stop fighting for you,” Kerry promised Wednesday as he conceded the election to President Bush inside the cradle of democracy, Faneuil Hall.

“I did my best to express my vision and my hopes for America,” he told supporters in the old civic meetinghouse.

Kerry pulled the plug on his presidential quest late Wednesday morning after conferring with advisers who had concluded there was no way for him to win mathematically despite the lawyers’ push to litigate.

In the days leading up to the election, Kerry and his aides believed they would win based on polling from battleground states. And on Election Day, early exit polls suggested Kerry was on his way to victory, but as Florida began to slip away the mood turned grim.

“It’s a very difficult election to understand,” said Tad Devine, one of Kerry’s senior strategists, citing the Democratic nominee’s wide margins with independent and women voters, usually a formula for success.

Campaign officials were disheartened because of the promising exit polls.

In the closing hours of the campaign, Kerry had seemed confident of victory, sure of his message, and serene as the finish line came into view.

But Kerry the candidate and his campaign had had a multitude of problems.

He demonstrated a humorless intensity, and struggled to come across as likable and warm. On the stump, he was uneven, often providing his audiences with elaborate policy prescriptions that gave little opportunity for applause.

So caught up was he in the nuance of his ideas that Kerry often gave ammunition to his opponent, contradicting himself as he thought aloud.

“I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” Kerry said last spring as he tried to explain why he had opposed a supplemental spending bill to fund U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Caught on tape, that one sentence allowed Bush to nail Kerry as an unprincipled flip-flopper who would say anything to get elected, even if untrue.

His campaign organization also was beset with problems, and his campaigns have always been messy affairs.

Still, by the campaign’s end, Kerry had begun connecting with voters in a way that had often eluded him earlier.

In Xenia, Ohio, Michael Adams stood up in the high school gymnasium and told voters how it felt to lose his job at the Delphi manufacturing plant. He described what it was like to cash out his retirement plan to pay for household bills. And he told the rapt crowd why he had decided to vote for Kerry.

Later, when a woman asked Kerry to name his hero, he reeled off several, including Christopher Reeve, the late actor and advocate for medical research. Then he paused, and with some emotion, added one more name: “People like Michael Adams. People who overcome adversity. People who show courage every single day in this country and often aren’t recognized for it. There are a whole bunch of folks who are working against odds.”

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