By Amanda Becker
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton walked onto the ballroom stage Wednesday morning to do what many had considered unthinkable: thank her campaign staff after failing in her bid to become the first woman elected U.S. president, instead of the anticipated victory speech under a symbolic glass ceiling.
Hundreds of staffers and supporters gathered at the New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan to hear Clinton speak publicly for the first time after her bruising loss to New York real estate magnate Donald Trump in the early hours of the morning.
Many wore the same clothes as the night before, having stayed up all night after leaving the glass-ceilinged Jacob J. Javits Convention Center, where Clinton's final rally never materialized.
Campaign Chairman John Podesta told the distraught crowd just after 2 a.m. to go home and expect to ultimately "bring this home." Shortly after, news broke that Clinton had telephoned Trump to concede.
As staffers and supporters filed into the ballroom, there were tears, hugs, and disbelief that Clinton, a former secretary of state, U.S senator and first lady, had again failed to shatter what she called the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” after her first attempt at the presidency in 2008, when she lost in her bid for the Democratic nomination.
This time, Clinton won the Democratic primary race, becoming the first women to secure a major party's nomination in her race against U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. But in the final contest for the White House, she lost to Trump, the unorthodox Republican nominee.
“We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought, but I still believe in America and I always will, and if you do then we must accept this result and then look to the future,” Clinton said, with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, daughter Chelsea Clinton and Chelsea’s husband, Marc Mezvinsky, at her side.
Also on the stage were Clinton's vice presidential pick, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, and his wife, Anne Holton.
Clinton wore a black suit with purple lapels - the color created by combining blue and red, the colors that symbolize the two major U.S. political parties - and not the suffragette white that many expected Tuesday night. Bill Clinton wore a matching tie.
Clinton urged her backers to seek unity in the wake of defeat.
“Donald Trump is going to be our president, we owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” she said.
Likely facing her last opportunity for a presidential run, Clinton, 69, acknowledged the bitter sting of an election defeat in which initial results show she won the popular vote but came up short in the Electoral College vote that ultimately decides the race.
Clinton had been leading Trump in public opinion polls for months, and in the final week of her campaign, her staff celebrated a drawn-out campaign marked with vitriol at star-studded rallies with performers such as Jon Bon Jovi, Jay Z and Beyonce.
But as election returns came in, Trump pulled off major upsets in key states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida that Clinton's campaign expected to win. Aides appeared visibly shaken as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning.
"Hate trumps love, I guess," a supporter in the ballroom on Wednesday said, flipping the phrase Clinton had used to close her rallies.
Clinton thanked her supporters - women and young people in particular - and urged them to never give up.
“I’ve had successes, and I’ve had setbacks, sometimes really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional, public, political careers. You will have successes and setbacks too. This setback hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it,” she said.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alden Bentley and Leslie Adler)