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Just browsing 

It was a warm evening last Thursday night. I was sitting on a bench outside Quail Ridge Bookshop in Raleigh, fiddling idly with the mystifying array of functions on my new cell phone, when a blue Ford Expedition pulled into a parking space in front of me.

Already overcome with the blissful languor of a Southern summer evening, I glanced at the family getting out of the truck. I saw a trim, tanned and quite handsome man getting out of the driver's seat. "Hmm," I thought. "That guy looks like..."

I went back to the video game I'd just discovered on my cell phone. I wondered if anyone had ever told the man whom he resembled and whether he enjoyed the comparison. I looked up again and saw the man with his wife and two small children, walking past me into the bookstore.

There was no question. It was him, The Candidate.

I put the phone away and got up for a better look through the store window. The Candidate's wife and children had disappeared into the recesses of the store, but he was browsing near the front, in the Southern fiction section.

He was wearing a lime-green oxford shirt, khaki pants and running shoes, casual attire but suitable for a good-looking, small-town Southern lawyer, the type who might be the hero of a John Grisham novel. Fittingly, The Candidate now moved to the mystery titles nearby.

There was no one to observe him but me, since everyone else in the store was on the lower level for a reading by an author promoting his fast-rising book, one that had just cracked The New York Times bestseller list. A few feet away from The Candidate were stacks of his own book, the publication of which had coincided with his candidacy. But the books were on the floor, an undignified two towers of overstock in front of the purchase counter.

Only 24 hours before, The Candidate had announced the end of his candidacy. Only 48 hours before, the eyes of millions across the nation had been on this Candidate, television cameras and Secret Service agents tracked his movements and journalists wondered if he'd be able to knock off the establishment front-runner.

But there was no improbable, Grisham-like triumph at the end of this tale, and right now the Candidate was browsing in a small bookstore with all the time in the world.

I walked into the store and walked up to The Candidate, notebook and pen at the ready. I identified myself as a journalist. "Senator, could I trouble you for a minute of your time?"

Firmly, slowly, emphatically, with deliberate emphasis and a little loudly, he replied, "No."

"Well, congratulations on a good race," I replied.

He thanked me, his face brightening to the megawatt smile that I'd seen so often on television.

I walked away from The Candidate, marveling at the illusory magic of a modern political campaign, and how quickly that illusion vanishes when the television cameras go away, how one who was once a Candidate can become a guy just browsing in a bookstore.

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