Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator, Daniel K. Inouye, sponsored Sunday morning’s coffee for Democratic Party of Hawaii delegates at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki.

Three hours later, former Congressman Ed Case gave them a real jolt.

Though some suspected Case would drop out of the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District after finishing third to second-place finisher state Senator Colleen Hanabusa a week ago in a special election, the announcement still came as a shocker.

“There is room for only one standard-bearer for our party,” Case told a hushed ballroom full of delegates and leaders. “Anything else would only divide us, only compromise us, all that we and generations before us have worked together so hard for. And many say that that standard-bearer should be determined in the upcoming primary. But, given what’s at stake, and last week’s elections, I have concluded we need to make that decision now. So, today, I withdraw my candidacy.”

The ballroom erupted.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” screamed a woman sitting next to me.

Like nearly everyone else in the room, she was on her feet, clapping, screaming, disbelieving. Many were in tears. The applause was intense, sustained, heart-felt, an outpouring of emotion that surpassed all other expressions during the Democrats’ three long days of politicking.

Ed Case — the outsider, the reformer, the maverick who charted his own course regardless of what party elders thought — had done what even Inouye could not: He brought Democrats together at their own convention.

Instead of another race where two popular Democrats go at each other — as was the case in the May 22 election to fill Neil Abercrombie‘s seat — Case’s decision makes Hanabusa’s journey not only to the Sept. 18 primary but also to the Nov. 2 general election considerably easier.

Speaking later that morning, Inouye himself told the party he was “deeply moved” by Case’s decision, adding, “He showed that he was a real Democrat.”

“Magnanimous,” said newly elected party chairman Dante Carpenter.

Case, 57, also kept his political career alive by ceding the race to Hanabusa, who in all likelihood will face incumbent Charles Djou, the young Republican who has been in Congress all of eight days.

Though Inouye told delegates he would run again in 2016, he would be 92 that November. He and Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is up for re-election in 2012, both turn 86 this September. Djou, 39, Hanabusa, 59, and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, 55, are each probable Senate candidates.

Still, it had to have been a tough decision for Case to drop out. Just three days earlier he told Civil Beat he was running for sure in the primary, suggesting that with just two candidates in the race he could defeat Hanabusa.

But rumors had swirled around town given that Case, who had previously served more than four years in the 2nd Congressional District, finished a disappointing third in the race that once seemed his. Polls showed that Hanabusa was gaining ground at Case’s expense.

Had Case lost again to Hanabusa in September, it would have been his third consecutive defeat and perhaps the end of his political career. Instead, standing at the podium in the Hilton ballroom on Sunday, Democrats saw a glimmer of the old Case — the relaxed yet cocky warrior, easy with a smile and a self-deprecating joke.

“That’s the most applause I have gotten for a long time,” Case said after dropping his bombshell. The line got big laughs.

Before leaving the stage, however, Case offered unsolicited advice to Hanabusa.

“I say to you, Colleen, listen to the voices of those almost 70 percent,” he said, referring to the segment of the electorate who voted for him and Djou. “Listen and adopt, incorporate, espouse and commit, and you will win. Don’t, and you will have a very difficult election. And I know you have the capacity in you, and I am trusting you to do that by withdrawing.”

Following Case at the microphone, Hanabusa was so flustered she could barely manage to stick to her script. She did say this about Case’s gesture, however: “This is something I will never forget, and no Democrat that sits in this room.”

Right, that.

Soon, after Inouye roused the crowd with a speech full of history, humility and humor, top leaders surrounded Inouye on the Hilton stage for hand-holding and the singing of “Hawaii Aloha.”

Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, who held the senator’s hand, seemed energized, while Abercrombie and Hannemann, the heavyweights for governor, appeared as if the wind had been taken out of their sails. Just the day before all attention had been on their race.

And Ed Case? He had already left the building. His last words to his party: “I leave today still proud to be a Democrat.”

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