By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee took the stage at Florida's state GOP convention in October after his three main rivals gave energetic stemwinders before a throng of 4,000 conservative activists.
But when his turn came, Thompson mumbled for about five minutes and departed abruptly, leaving a stunned crowd to wonder whether he was even interested in running for president. The Miami Herald wrote the next day that "dozens of people asked: "Is that it?' " As the men competing for the GOP nomination head back to Florida before the state's primary on Jan. 29, it appears that Thompson will not be going with them. After he finished well behind in Saturday's South Carolina primary, there were indications that Thompson could drop out as early as today. His campaign has yet to announce a schedule of Florida campaign stops.
Thompson had said repeatedly that he needed a strong finish in South Carolina to stay in the race. He failed, ending up with 16 percent of the vote, behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and just a point ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
In an election-night speech to supporters in Columbia, the normally laid-back Thompson thundered for 10 minutes about the less obvious accomplishments of his run for the presidency in what sounded much like a valedictory.
"We will always be bound by a close bond because we have traveled a very special road together for a very special purpose," he told supporters. "We'll always stand strong together . . . we'll always stand strong together, and I can't thank you enough for that."
The road for Thompson began last March, when he assembled a small group of advisers to help him consider a presidential campaign. He began to raise money and formed an exploratory committee.
The former star of "Law & Order" and several big movies effectively teased the country for months in spring and summer while he considered whether to begin a White House campaign, becoming for a time the great hope for conservative Republicans frustrated with their other choices.
But his campaign was chaotic from the start, losing its manager and many of its senior staff members even before the Labor Day weekend announcement. And Thompson turned in a lackluster effort once in the race, making infrequent appearances and never lighting a fire under voters.
His best moment came when he launched his campaign. At the end of that week, he took the lead in the Republican field in national polls.
But Thompson saw his poll numbers plummet from the high 20s and low 30s in early September to single digits by the end of last year. His support in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire declined so far that he barely campaigned in those battlegrounds.
Campaign aides worked hard to cover for their candidate's lack of enthusiasm, explaining his lack of campaign appearances -- he often had just one public event a day -- by saying Thompson was running a different kind of campaign that would harness the power of Internet communications and conservative talk radio.
Yet in the five minutes of that October speech in Florida, Thompson did the most to validate the chief criticism of his 2008 presidential bid: that he never had the fire in his belly to be a serious contender.
"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.