In the heat of battle, John Kerry abandoned his crew.

Not in Vietnam.  This is not Karl Rovian Swift Boat libel.

No, John Kerry abandoned us here in Ohio and around the country at precisely the moment we needed him most....when the fire was heaviest and we were taking the hardest casualties....right after Election Day.

This is also not about whether or not the election itself was stolen.  Many of us believe it was, and that the evidence is clear.  Many don't and never will, no matter what the evidence.

But despite all his promises and those of his runningmate John Edwards---who repeated them that very morning---John Kerry left us hanging.  His campaign threw in the towel---and a piece of our hearts---while we were (and are) still collecting evidence.  It abandoned the commitment to full and fair elections not only in 2004 but, perhaps more importantly, for years to come.

There's no need to repeat the full laundry list of what went suspiciously wrong on November 2.  For us Ohioans, its enough to know that tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of those much vaunted "likely voters" came to inner city polling places in Cleveland, Columbus, Akron and elsewhere, saw lines stretching for four, six and eight hours, and did not vote.  They had jobs and families.  While thousands of eager, committed Kerry volunteers moved heaven and earth to get these folks to the polls, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell made sure there weren't enough voting machines to accomodate them.

He and Jeb Bush also labored long, hard and successfully over the past four years to guarantee those voting machines had no paper trails.  Jeb told the world there would be no recount no matter what happened. 

George Bush has made it clear that history doesn't concern him.  But no matter what anyone says or does, no one will ever know what the true vote count was on November 2.  Those machines say Bush won by 3.5 million votes.  But the ultimate vote count was and always will be suspect, hostage to a few cynical keystrokes from the Republicans who own and control those machines.  Nothing will ever change that. 

There was much much more electoral abuse on November 2, all of which cut to the core of whether or not the Kerry campaign could even hope to win.  This had nothing to do with issues of the economy, Iraq or fundamentalist morality.  It had to do with guaranteeing Americans the right to vote, and to have those votes fairly counted. 

Given all that, and the now-infamous discrepancies between the exit polls and the official vote counts, there was only one thing Kerry could have done to honor the work we all did---not concede.  Indeed, his campaign has a sacred obligation to consider the election not over until all allegations of electoral abuse are vented, investigated and put to rest.  We now hear there is a call for evidence to be brought forward.  This isn't enough.  Many millions of dollars were raised by the Democrats to guard against the widespread fraud that defined this election.  Where is it?  Why isn't it being aggressively deployed? 

During the campaign, Team Kerry spent unlimited time, money and effort on denying the public the ability to vote for Ralph Nader.  The attacks were political, personal, procedural---and endless. 

But after spending all that energy attacking the left, the Kerry campaign conceded to the most powerful and dangerous crew of right wing extremists this nation has ever seen--and then had no time at all to make sure the vote count was fair or accurate.  Kerry's hurried, feeble plea that George W. Bush heal the wounds of disunity in this country must have been greeted with gales of laughter in Karl Rove's White House.

At the grassroots, among those of us who labored long and hard to unseat that vicious, hateful, anti-democratic regime, Kerry's sorry surrender has evoked utter horror.

This election saw an unprecedented grassroots outpouring.  Kerry was not an inspiring candidate.  Until the last month, his campaign was a study in ineptitude. 

But tens of millions of Americans were (and are) terrified of who and what now controls the federal government.  Uncounted thousands came out to make phone calls, canvass door-to-door and drive likely Democrats to the polls. 

But when it was so dubiously over, Team Kerry had no such commitment.  Not to victory.  Not to fair play.  Not to the hard work of those who volunteered with such amazing energy and dedication. 

Kerry's sad, premature swoon gave the Republicans a totally open field to claim victory for their hateful "moral" values, for infinite deficits, for environmental destruction, for an extremist judiciary, you name it. 

On TV, "strategists" like James Carville, Robert Shrum and so many other slick operators grovelled shamelessly at the "brilliance" of Karl Rove while ignoring the miserable campaign they mis-handled right from the start.  Arnold Schwarzenegger called the Democrats a bunch of losers, and this is exactly who he meant. 

For these backroom wire pullers, issues are poker chips and the horserace is all that matters.  Shrum has lost every campaign he's run. Forgive us, please, if we can't help speculating which of those hopeless bumblers is actually on the Republican payroll.  Or, to avoid the conspiracy theories, how many will soon join the infamous Clinton triangulator Dick Morris among the right-wing bloviators.

But in the real world, where people care about their lives and the issues that define them, this country is deeply divided.  There was no mandate this year for George W. Bush's reactionary attacks than there was in the obviously stolen election of 2000. 

If Rove won this one at all, it was with those classic totalitarian staples, hate and terror.  The Osama bin Laden cameo the Friday before election day was the ultimate, essential October Surprise for a "war president" with not one positive accomplishment to his credit.

If Kerry hadn't conceded, the right wingers would have screamed bloody murder.  But what else is new? 

At least some serious attention might then have been paid to the denial of the right to vote of people of color (who often waited eight hours here in central Ohio) and young people (students at Kenyon College waited eleven hours).  There might've been a real national dialog on the realities of electronic voting and who can hack those machines.  We might even have heard of the thousands of cases of intimidation and fraud that defined this election far more than Karl Rove's "moral values."

All Kerry had to do was let things play themselves out, even for a few days. 

But he didn't.  So we are proceeding without him. 

Grassroots citizen groups are holding hearings here in central Ohio so those who were denied the right to vote can get their testimony on film.  We will continue our investigations.  We will do what people in a democracy must do---fight.

By surrendering before this election was done, the Kerry campaign marginalized itself, not us. 

Elections are only a single day in the life of a democracy.  Whatever really happened November 2, we will never be free until each and every American is guaranteed the right to vote in a reasonable time frame, without being harassed, with those ballots reliably counted.   

And that's just for starters.