WASHINGTON -- President Carter, smiling but sad-eyed, conceded to Ronald Reagan Tuesday night and told tearful supporters, 'I can't stand here tonight and say this doesn't hurt.'
He is the first elected president to lose a re-election bid since Herbert Hoover.
Carter made the concession statement shortly before 10 p.m. EST in the face of election returns showing Reagan would win big.
He entered a hotel ballroom to cheers and shook hands with many men and women who have been with him throughout his one-term presidency.
Then, turning to the crowd, Carter smiled and said: 'I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you, so I can't stand here tonight and say this doesn't hurt.'
Carter said he personally telephoned Reagan about 8:35 p.m. EST to congratulate him on victory. He asked his partisans to make a 'sincere and fruitful effort' to support their adversary.
Rosalynn Carter, at her husband's side, looked grim and the president's eyes and face reflected the huge letdown his words expressed.
'I wanted to serve as president because I love this country and because I love the people of this nation,' he said. 'I am disappointed -- but I have not lost either love.'
Robert Strauss, Carter's campaign manager, introduced his boss as 'the splendid president.'
Carter was in control of his voice throughout the concession speech, but White House officials said he had let his grief show in private earlier when he got the first definite bad news.
Press secretary Jody Powell -- a longtime friend and confidant -- informed the president aboard Air Force One early in the day that pollster Patrick Caddell's polls showed he would lose.
Officials said Carter cried. His voice also cracked in Plains, Ga., where he voted early Tuesday and spoke briefly to hometown friends.
In his concession speech, Carter said he had not accomplished everything he hoped in one term, but felt he had made significant contributions to America.
'We must now come together as a united and a unified people,' he said.
Carter, 56, won election over Gerald Ford in 1976 with just 50.1 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Ford.
Tuesday night, Carter said: 'The people of the United States have made their choice and of course I accept their decision, but I admit it's not with the same enthusiasm I accepted the decision four years ago.
'I have a deep appreciation, however, of the system that allows the people to make their decision.'
Of Reagan, Carter said: 'I look forward to working closely with him in the next few weeks ... we will have a very close transition period.'
He said he not only telephoned Reagan, but sent a telegram of congratulations and, 'I signed it Jimmy Carter.'
The president had special praise for Walter Mondale, calling him 'the best vice president anybody ever had ... I've had the daily aid of a wise man and a good man at my side.'
Members of Carter's Cabinet and his closest aides all stood behind him on the podium, cheering, sometimes smiling, but mostly grim.
In the 1976 election, Ford did not concede until the day after the election and his wife read the statement for him because Ford had laryngitis.
But Carter, who had urged Democrats to think what it it would be like to 'wake up Wednesday morning' and find Reagan had won, was losing by a much wider margin than Ford did. He decided to take on the grim task of conceding early.
The Oval Office was dark most of the day. Carter took a nap and talked with political advisers during the afternoon.
Carter had arrived in Plains, Ga., shortly after dawn Tuesday -- just as he did in triumph four years and one day ago -- near the end of a 6,645-mile campaign finale that began Monday morning.
'On balance, our nation has made good progress,' Carter told friends and neighbors as he stood on the platform of the town railroad depot.
But he acknowledged to reporters that the American hostages in Iran had been a 'negative political factor' for him.
Carter joined Rosalynn, who had come in a few hours earlier from her own campaigning, and went directly to Plains High School to vote about 8 a.m. He later visited his mother, who is hospitalized with a broken hip.
He made an emotional talk to the people of Plains.
'I've tried to keep my commitment, ' he said, pausing several moments after his voice began to break and his eyes grow teary ... 'to you.' he finished. 'God bless you.'
Carter's bid for a second term put him on a 50,000-mile, 23-state trail that began Labor Day. It ended Monday night in a jammed hangar at Boeing Field International Airport in Seattle a half hour before midnight Pacific time.