Fred D. Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, dropped out of the Republican race for president Tuesday after a third-place primary showing Saturday in South Carolina, a state he had hoped to win when he entered the race riding a wave of optimism among conservatives looking for a strong general election candidate.
His withdrawal came three days after he delivered a rambling speech Saturday night that signaled his departure was imminent. Aides said it was delayed because he went to Tennessee to tend to his mother, who was ill.
“I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort,” he said in a statement. “Jeri and I will always be grateful for the encouragement and friendship of so many wonderful people.”
Thompson’s advisers said he would not make an endorsement in the race.
At first blush, his decision would seem potentially to help Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who has competed for many of the same conservative voters that Thompson sought to appeal to. Huckabee said Tuesday that he might have come in second in South Carolina precisely because Thompson had siphoned off much of his support, permitting Sen. John McCain of Arizona to win.
“The votes that he took essentially were votes that I would have most likely had, according to the exit polls and every other analysis,” Huckabee said on MSNBC.
But Huckabee has moved to scale back his own campaign after his South Carolina showing, and has backed away from plans to campaign heavily in Florida. Assuming Huckabee does not concentrate on Florida, Thompson’s withdrawal could therefore be a boon for Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has aggressively sought to recruit Florida conservatives to his side.
Romney quickly issued a warm statement praising Thompson, signaling what his campaign said would be an effort to recruit them as the Republican candidates concentrate almost all their resources here in Florida in preparation of next week’s vote. Evangelical Christians make up 25 percent of the vote here.
“Throughout this campaign, Fred Thompson brought a laudable focus to the challenges confronting our country and the solutions necessary to meet them,” Romney said in a statement. “He stood for strong conservative ideas and believed strongly in the need to keep our conservative coalition together.”