NEW YORK -- Everyone knew it was the next-to-the-last hurrah, but almost none of the faithful wanted to admit it. No one wanted to let go -- not the candidate, not his followers.
The time for making peace with political reality was at hand, and the candidate, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, was trying to make the transfer of loyalty to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton less painful.
With Maryland's Tsongas delegates sitting close to the stage, the vanquished candidate consoled and cajoled yesterday during a spirited but bittersweet rally at the Sheraton New Yorker Hotel.
He made no appeal for blind party loyalty or total conversion to the banner of the party nominee. All-out enthusiasm seemed out keeping for a candidate whose message had always rung true to his followers. But appeals to pragmatism were ample, and the candidate's famous one-liners in good supply.
Referring to his abrupt withdrawal in the face of financial problems, Mr. Tsongas said he would not encounter money problems in the future:
"I've taken care of that. I've asked Ross Perot to adopt me," he said.
Observing that "God gave me a seven-letter name," easily convertible to an 800-number, he lamented his failure to copy the fund-raising approach used by another of his opponents, former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
He told his supporters how he had made his peace with political reality, why he thought unity was important. The Clinton nomination should be embraced by Tsongas backers, he said, because that's how the game is played:
"If I had won, I would have expected him to do the same thing."
Mr. Tsongas was addressing his remarks to delegates like Dedrick Dunbar of Columbia, a young voter who remained determined, even after the rally, to cast his vote for Paul Tsongas.
"Marylanders voted for me as a Tsongas delegate, to come here and vote for Paul Tsongas," he said. He will campaign for Bill Clinton in the fall, Mr. Dunbar said, but when the ballots are counted tomorrow night, his name will be in the Tsongas column.
But Raymond E. Suarez, a Tsongas representative to the Democratic National Committee's credentials committee and vice president of the Baltimore County Teachers Association, said he did not see tremendous differences between Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton on the important issues.
In the end, he predicted, most Tsongas voters will support the Democratic nominee.
"The big attraction of Tsongas was that he wasn't pandering to anyone," said Mr. Suarez, a social studies teacher at Hereford High School.
L The bottom line was this, the candidate told his supporters:
"It seems to me it's a given that George Bush must not be re-elected." And he restated his attack on what he regards as Mr. Bush's cynicism -- particularly in regard to the abortion issue.
"George Bush is not anti-choice because he's anti-choice. He's anti-choice because he wanted to placate the Reagan right. Republican women are going to drive George Bush nuts at the Republican convention. I wish them well."
Tsongas delegates lapped up his anti-Republican humor.
"Republicans ought to replace Dan Quayle with Jack Kemp," he said, smiling at the mischievous nature of his suggestion, one he hoped might create uneasiness among Republicans.
"They're not that smart," one of the delegates in the audience shouted.
"I know they're not. . . . They're Republicans," Mr. Tsongas said. Then, remembering that his party can use every voter out there, he softened his assertion, saying Republican voters were smarter than the people they put in the White House.
The Tsongas delegates applauded when he said, "The addition of Al Gore [as vice presidential running mate] is a major addition."
Finally, he suggested that the Tsongas team could continue its campaign in the broadest sense even if it failed tonight to win adoption of platform planks more completely reflecting his economic views -- and he predicted that the Tsongas planks would fail when offered on the convention floor this evening.
"We're going to start the country in the direction we have to go," he said.
He gave the credit to the men and women waving green and white Tsongas placards yesterday. He applauded them for having the courage and foresight to run with him when few regarded him seriously.
"I may be the most visible form of this campaign," he said. "But you did it. You did it."
"You kept the message alive."