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THE FINAL DAY

Kerry flies back home with Ohio on his mind

From joking about his dirty overcoat to nearly sweeping his wife off her feet with a hug and kiss, John F. Kerry was the picture of humor and heartiness yesterday, exhibiting the kind of confidence that recalled his prediction of his comeback victory in the Iowa caucuses in January.

That was in the glow of daylight. As polls began to close at 7 p.m., Kerry finished four hours of local news interviews, 38 in total, and headed back to his Beacon Hill townhouse with one word on his mind, aides said: Ohio.

"His mood was calm, steady, enthusiastic through most of the day, and then the vote counts start coming in, and you have to brace yourself," said a senior Kerry adviser traveling with the candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Kerry knows this is coming down to a handful of states, probably Ohio. And when it hinges on one single state, the anxiety just rises enormously."

Asked if he was at peace yesterday morning, win or lose, Kerry's reaction was like an echo from last winter when so many Americans had written off his struggling campaign. "Well, you know, I've fought hard," Kerry said aboard his campaign plane as it approached Boston. "Did what I had to do."

By midnight, the mood among Kerry advisers was marked by cautiously chosen words and deep breaths in the face of vote counts favoring Bush in Florida and, in several counties, Ohio -- two states where the Democrat had poured money and people.

Kerry aides had begun using conditional phrases when firm verbs had been the rule earlier. Senior adviser Mike McCurry said late last night, "I think we're going to win Ohio," when 24 hours earlier -- during a Kerry rally Monday in Toledo -- he was dancing a jig on the tarmac and declaring that the Massachusetts senator would win Ohio and enough other states to unseat President Bush.

Pressed, Kerry aides refused to concede anything less than victory for their candidate. "We think we've been maintaining a lead in Ohio all night with voter turnout statewide and votes in the big Democratic cities. We're going to win," said campaign spokesman David Wade.

The prevailing view in the Democratic camp was that they had done all they could. Kerry's candidacy rose and fell last year, rose and fell this summer, and rose again in the nick of time this fall for him to show Americans a thorough alternative to Bush during the three debates and on the campaign trail these last weeks.

"When all is said and done, if you can feel you've put the choice between Kerry and Bush before people clearly and they know all the important issues at stake, then you've done all you can do and feel good about it," said John Sasso, the Massachusetts strategist who was one of a handful of key figures in the Democratic campaign.

After an 8 a.m. rally with volunteers in Wisconsin, Kerry jetted home for the last time in the 2004 campaign -- dispensing silver picture frames to his traveling staff, tossing gifts of cherry red fleeces to his traveling press corps, and tearing up as he said thank-you to long-serving, long-suffering aides like Wade and Stephanie Cutter.

A man for whom nostalgia comes easy, he also spoke at length about his fondness for his mustard-colored barn jacket that has been a staple on the campaign since last winter, even when others would chide him to give it a wash.

"These coats don't get good until they get dirty and you've worn them in," Kerry told a small group of reporters, as if there was nothing else to worry about. "You know we New Englanders, we wear them till they're threadbare, fall apart."

After landing at Hanscom Field at noontime, Kerry's motorcade sped back to Boston along the Massachusetts Turnpike and past cheering supporters waving campaign signs from overpasses along the way. He went straight to the State House to vote, finding his wife, Teresa, and two daughters waiting for him. Kerry held his girls' hands high in the air in a private moment of exuberance -- there were no cameras in sight -- and gave his wife a warm embrace that carried her a bit in the air. Inside, forgoing his reading glasses in a nod to the media cameras, he leaned over his ballot and slowly, deliberately pressed his black felt pen into the oval choosing a presidential slate. Then he stood and smiled.

Indeed, throughout the day, he and his family were enveloped by a spectrum of emotions. His daughter Alex had butterflies in her stomach, saying, "I feel confident, but I'm feeling nauseous too. That's just me."

Teresa Heinz Kerry said her exhaustion was tempered by exhilaration, and just overhearing someone mention the name of a battleground state like Florida was enough to capture her attention. Several of Kerry's aides, meanwhile, said they went to bed with an edgy confidence after a brief 2 a.m. rally yesterday in La Crosse, Wis., and woke up feeling simply edgy four hours later.

Kerry's top lieutenants felt far better through the afternoon, as internal campaign exit polling showed Kerry ahead in the closely fought battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan -- a total of 95 electoral votes that would be more than enough, combined with wins in heavily Democratic states, to unseat President Bush. Aides kept the exact, rolling data from Kerry for the most part, though, given his dislike for polls.

Yet Kerry clearly felt something good was happening yesterday when he disclosed that, this morning, he hoped to have "a few meetings of some importance" -- probably with transition team leaders Jim Johnson and Alexis Herman, who were in Boston yesterday. After that, he said, he planned to take off for a bike ride -- giving no hint that he might prefer to stay under the covers this morning.

"I'm so intent on trying to get back into shape," Kerry said, although adding that he did not plan to take a vacation immediately. Win or draw, he said, he plans to stay in Boston through Friday.

"Going to have to be a working vacation -- I'm anxious to roll up my sleeves and get to work," Kerry said, describing himself as the type who doesn't need a get-away-from-it-all respite. "Give me a few hours so I'll do something and then I'm happy, a mix, as long as it's my schedule."

Wade, his traveling press secretary and longest-serving aide on the road, said that Kerry's certainty about the case he made for his candidacy reminded him notably of their Iowa caucus campaign, when he would stay at town halls until the last voter finished talking and wanted to leave. His recent campaign stops in Ohio particularly, Wade said, reminded aides of Iowa.

Losing the bid for the presidency, in turn, was on no one's lips yesterday in the Kerry camp. But family members, after nearly two straight years of campaigning, were holding their collective breath.

"My dad has been a fighter all the way through this, and if he has to, he'll stay up through the night, fighting to the end," said his older daughter Alex.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com. 

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