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Will Thompson Roll the Closing Credits?
"His rivals would do more in a day than Fred would do in a month," said one disaffected Thompson insider. "He created the perception, fairly or not, that he was just going through the motions."
"Thompson never filled those huge shoes from last summer's polls, but he did manage to score well in the debates and get a respectful vote in South Carolina," said Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
Thompson was unable to unite the party's right wing around his candidacy. His refusal to support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and questions about his lobbying for an abortion rights group raised questions for social conservatives. And his laid-back style and several early flubs on the campaign trail made others question his chances against an energized Democrat.
All that shut off the fundraising spigot for Thompson, who quickly ran out of money. After an initial stab at competing in Iowa and New Hampshire, he essentially dropped out of those contests and focused on winning the first state primary in his native South.
For two weeks, he toured South Carolina in what he called the "Clear Conservative Choice: Hands Down!" bus tour. Meanwhile, his campaign manager pleaded for cash in repeated e-mails. "We are $29,711 away from reaching our $1 million goal," one said.
Thompson used what little money the campaign could raise for a final television ad in South Carolina, hoping to appeal to the state's conservative Republicans.
"I grew up in a little town just like this," Thompson said in the ad. He "fought for tax cuts and conservative judges" as a senator, the ad continued. "And I'm proud to have had a 100 percent pro-life voting record." The ad ended with an announcer saying: "Strength, conviction, honesty. Fred Thompson, president."
For the first time, Thompson seemed more energized, campaigning aggressively across South Carolina. But the blitz did not produce an outpouring for Thompson, who by then was competing with Huckabee for the same conservative Southern voters.
After Thompson's South Carolina loss, advisers privately suggested that their candidate could throw his support to McCain, boosting McCain's hopes of defeating Huckabee, Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani in the fractured GOP field. In the Senate, Thompson helped McCain pass campaign finance legislation, and the two are friends.
But one senior Thompson aide said he did not expect an endorsement of McCain anytime soon -- even if Thompson were to drop out of the race this week.