Fred Thompson Drops Presidential Bid

Early buzz for candidacy, plagued by delay and low energy, never picked up steam


Jan. 22, 2008 — -- It's curtains for the presidential campaign of Fred Thompson, whose campaign failed to capitalize on early momentum and never won any presidential contests.

"Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for president of the United States," read a statement that the former Tennessee senator released this afternoon.

"I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort. Jeri and I will always be grateful for the encouragement and friendship of so many wonderful people."

The former lawyer and actor once seemed a likely top-tier candidate, but he failed to capitalize on a jumbled Republican field and never reached the momentum many predicted when talk of his joining the race began late in the spring.

According to Senior Adviser Rich Galen, it was as early as Saturday midday when Thompson acknowledged that his campaign "might well be drawing to an end," as disappointing reports from polling centers starting trickling in.

"When Fred Thompson said that he wasn't driven to win, that also means that he wasn't going to fall off the Wilson bridge, if he lost ,"Galen told ABC News. "It just didn't work out. I think he probably is fully at ease with this."

The former Tennessee senator called his friend and '08 rival Sen. John McCain Tuesday to let him know his was dropping out.

"Fred Thompson ran an honorable campaign and I consider him a close friend," McCain told reporters after Thompson's announcement hit the news. "I wish him and his family the best."

After narrowly edging out McCain for third place in Iowa, Thompson readied for a full-scale battle in South Carolina. It was in the Palmetto State where Thompson declared he was making "his stand" — and spent the last two weeks campaigning, skipping the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries, where he finished seventh and fifth, respectively.

It was clear it would be do or die in South Carolina for the Thompson campaign when manager Bill Lacy moved a dozen staffers to Columbia to work the state and cut the salaries of those who remained at McLean, Va., headquarters.

Thompson hoped a win in South Carolina would be his "firewall" — part of his strategy to gain momentum in Southern states. Two days before the primaries, the campaign bought airtime on multiple television stations statewide to simultaneously air its latest commercial.

Thompson called South Carolina his "home territory," a state where citizens didn't think he "talked funny" and where they knew how to cook green beans "not crunchy."

However the night McCain won the South Carolina primary, a Thompson campaign spokesman told ABC News the campaign's status was "fluid" and would evaluate its situation based on final results.

In a speech Saturday night before the final results were known, he thanked his supporters and his family, and suggested his candidacy had pushed the Republican Party to evaluate itself.

"Because of your efforts and because of our working together our party is looking in the mirror," Thompson told supporters in Columbia, S.C.

"My friends we will always be bound by a close bond. … It's never been about me, it's never been about you, it's about our country," Thompson told the crowd, saying "Stay Strong!" as he exited the stage.

The last GOP candidate to jump into the race, Thompson announced his candidacy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and kicked off his campaign in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 6 after a summer of missteps.

Though Thompson was trumpeted as the potential second coming of Republican hero former President Reagan, his presidential exploratory committee went through several staffing shuffles and reports of internal power struggles.

Once he announced and joined the campaign formally, he stepped into several gaffes and was routinely questioned for his lack of "fire in the belly." Thompson — who describes himself as "laid-back" — criticized the campaign process and showed particular disdain for debates, which he likened to "monkey shows."

The 65-year-old maintained a lighter campaign schedule than most of the top-tier candidates, but beefed up his schedule toward the final weeks.

"He understands that the way he chose to approach it wasn't being accepted from the majority of Republican primary voters, for whatever reason. I think it was important to him that he did this in the way he wanted to do it,"Galen said.

He often flew home on weekends to see his young family in Virginia. Thompson often bragged that he was not "eat up by ambition." He acknowledged many times he "may not be everyone's cup of tea."

Even before he left the race Thompson made it clear he would not be terribly disappointed with a loss.

"I can live, I will be happy either way, you decide. I'm not even trying to say that I'm better than everybody else. … I am just saying that what you see is what you get. I'm doing it my way — just like I have done everything else in my life," Thompson said on the campaign trail in Sioux City in November.

One of Thompson's strongest moments came toward the end of his campaign at the Jan. 10 South Carolina GOP debate in Myrtle Beach. Thompson declared this election was a "battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and its future."

He delivered a strong performance, where he produced a litany of accusations against then-surging front-runner former Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies … so much for federalism. So much for states' rights. So much for individual rights. That's not the model of the Reagan coalition, that's the model of the Democratic Party," Thompson said at the debate.

Thompson doggedly pursued the former Arkansas governor in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary, attacking him for receiving a state endorsement from the National Education Association and for once supporting a national smoking ban. Thompson also called moral foul on a pro-Huckabee group, whom he blamed for spreading false information about his record through push-polling and negative literature.

"This is not a legitimate debate of the issues. I confronted him man to man, person to person at the debates with regard to the issues, this is the response I get, anonymous stuff," Thompson said in response to the negative push-polling that he suspected came from Huckabee supporters.

Dubbing himself a "consistent conservative," Thompson has rarely changed his overall message throughout his campaign. Thompson cited fatherhood as one of the reasons he was running for president. He has two young children from his second marriage and three adult children from his first marriage, one of whom died from an accidental overdose in 2002.

His stump speeches were often centered on his ardent belief in federalism and championing states' rights. He talked about improving the country's intelligence efforts and securing the borders to bolster national security. He also talked about appointing conservative judges, which he felt was "the second most important thing a president could do."

Thompson also won the endorsement of anti-abortion group National Right to Life. The only GOP candidate to do so, Thompson put forth a Social Security plan, which he hoped would save the country from "bankrupting the next generation."

Before lunching on Southern delicacies in Columbia Saturday afternoon, as voters were going to the polls, Thompson told reporters that he was pleased by his campaign and proud of its efforts.

"We have been doing what we want to do, saying what we want to say, the way we wanna say it, being who we are. … It feels wonderful," Thompson said.

As for Thompson's future endeavors, Galen says he believes an endorsement is "not likely" at this time. He suspects the former candidate may hop back into radio commentary and spend time with his family.

"Fred Thompson has a lot of options available to him. Maybe since Sam Waterston has his job on 'Law & Order' as District Attorney, maybe Fred can get his job on Ameritrade commercials," Galen said.

ABC News Bret Hovell contributed reporting.

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