Concord, N.H. — It was February 1984, the day after the New Hampshire primary. A small caravan of dark sedans pulled out of a motel and headed home. Reubin Askew, a Democratic candidate, was quitting the presidential race. That scene could be repeated several times today as New Hampshire finishes counting the votes in the Republican and Democratic races. For some campaigns, this is a bittersweet moment - when dreams of the White House give way to the hard realities of too few votes and too little money.
In 1984, Mr. Askew was one of several hopefuls to quit after the results of New Hampshire sank in. Sen. Alan Cranston quickly withdrew. So did Sen. Ernest Hollings. A couple of weeks later, Sen. John Glenn was out.
This month, Alexander Haig got out of the GOP race before primary day. Democrat Bruce Babbitt calls New Hampshire make-or-break for him. Several other contenders, both Republicans and Democrats, also seemed likely to withdraw if the New Hampshire results proved unfavorable.
General Haig left with a flourish - firing a broadside at his chief target in the campaign, George Bush. Haig, who argues that Vice-President Bush would be a weak standard-bearer who would lead the GOP to defeat in November, threw his support to Sen. Robert Dole.
For Haig's hard-working staff, however, there was little glory in his dramatic farewell. For them, like hundreds of others who have labored in the 1988 campaign, the waning days of February can bring traumatic change after years of total commitment and personal sacrifice.
``There is an incredible letdown,'' says Kam Kuwata, who was the 1984 campaign press secretary to Senator Cranston. ``It's a strange feeling. One day you have 20 calls an hour and you're working 18 hours a day. The next day, no one will even return your calls. All of a sudden you have nothing to do and nowhere to go.''
Jim Bacchus, who was on Mr. Askew's presidential campaign staff, also retains vivid memories. He had worked for the former governor of Florida for 11 years, ever since he was 24. ``I always felt Reubin Askew should be president. Then one day, after New Hampshire, I realized that dream would never come true. It was the end of a chapter in my life,'' he says.
Although most candidates can read the handwriting on the wall, quitting can be tough. Senator Glenn, who was considered one of the front-runners in 1984, stayed in the campaign for a couple of weeks after New Hampshire, even when many thought he should get out. After poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Glenn took his campaign South and poured all his resources into an attempt to make a comeback.
It was a costly decision. Today Glenn still struggles with $2 million in leftover debts. Others, like Askew and Cranston, quit and cut their losses.
Mr. Kuwata says he understands Glenn's decision to try a little longer.
``There's always the feeling that if you just did things a little differently, you could do it. It's awfully difficult ... to realize that this is it.''
But for most candidates and their staffs, ``reality quickly sets in'' after the New Hampshire vote, says Mike Fernandez, former press secretary to Senator Hollings (D) of South Carolina.
When Hollings got less than 10 percent of the vote in the 1984 New Hampshire primary, he knew ``the jig was up,'' says Mr. Fernandez. Some staff members wanted to carry on. The next election was Super Tuesday, in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. That was the South - Hollings's own turf. But the senator said no.
Hollings took one day after New Hampshire to thank his best supporters privately and discuss shutting down the campaign with his staff. Then he called a press conference to make his decision public.
Fernandez says the adjustment after Hollings quit was difficult.
``We'd had very little sleep, and not much to eat for weeks. We were living on adrenalin. All of a sudden it was over.
``It took our bodies time to settle down and unwind and for the impact of it all to hit - a month or six weeks. In some respects, such as disjointed family life, it took a lot longer than that to work things out.
``Some campaign staff people got new jobs quickly. But some went for six months without finding other work,'' Fernandez says.
Sacrifices made by staff members and their families can sometimes equal or exceed those made by the candidates. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter's campaign ran out of money, some of his most loyal staff people, such as Hamilton Jordan, took out new mortgages on their houses to keep the effort going.
Of course, even after losing badly in New Hampshire, it is possible for a candidate to carry on, however hopeless it might seem.
This year, for example, Gary Hart vows to continue the fight, even though he has little support or funds. Pat Robertson also is expected to go all the way to the convention, as is the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But those are special cases. For most candidates, there is no reason to continue.
``You can keep going forever,'' says Kuwata. ``But you don't have a real campaign. If you're not covered by the newspapers and TV, it's not real. Voters don't think you have a chance if you're not on the news, not running ads. And voters don't want to throw their votes away.''
Despite all the sacrifice and disappointment involved with a losing campaign, staff members say a presidential race is unforgettable. Kuwata explains:
``To this day, many of the people who worked in Cranston's campaign are my friends. We've been in the bunker together.
``For that short period of time, they were my best friends. It's an experience that can never be taken away.''