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GOP field narrows in Fla.

Thompson ends run; Huckabee pulls back

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / January 23, 2008

WASHINGTON - Fred Thompson dropped out of the Republican presidential contest yesterday, while Mike Huckabee scaled back his campaign in Florida, shrinking the field for Tuesday's crucial primary to a fight for the top spot among Senator John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Thompson and Huckabee had been taking about one-quarter of the vote in recent polls in Florida, the biggest delegate prize so far. Giuliani, who has not actively competed in any previous contest, has made it his make-or-break state. The winner gets all 57 delegates and invaluable momentum heading into the Super Tuesday slate of 21 contests on Feb. 5.

Thompson, a former actor and US senator from Tennessee, was once seen as a savior by the party's conservative wing. When he finally jumped into the race in September, he quickly zoomed to the top of some national polls. But his campaign style was widely viewed as lethargic, he never caught on with the rank and file, and his standing slipped rapidly. Thompson made his last stand in South Carolina's primary, but his third-place finish Saturday doomed his chances.

Thompson said in a brief statement yesterday that he hoped "my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort." He did not immediately issue an endorsement.

Huckabee's second-place finish in South Carolina has left him strapped for cash. He is not running television ads in Florida, has suspended a press charter plane because not enough reporters are following him to require one, and acknowledged yesterday that he has stopped paying some top staff. As he curtails his Florida campaign, he vowed to focus on other Southern and border states voting on Super Tuesday that, unlike "winner-take-all" Florida, award delegates on a proportional basis.

"Right now, our plan is to play ball in Florida," Huckabee told CBS News yesterday. "If we got to Friday, and it looked like, no matter what we do, we're not going to best fourth - I don't think that's going to happen, but I think, who knows - we just have to look at the dynamics every day."

He and Thompson had both courted Florida's sizable evangelical community, an estimated 25 percent of the state's Republican electorate. As a result, the final push before Tuesday's primary could focus heavily on wooing evangelicals and other social conservatives looking for a new candidate to support.

Most recent polls in Florida indicate a three-way race among McCain, Romney, and Giuliani, with Huckabee fourth. Thompson had been running fifth.

McCain yesterday called Thompson his "close friend," praised his "honorable campaign," and hoped for a reprise of the Tennessean's support in the 2000 race. But Charlie Arlinghaus, a senior adviser to Thompson in New Hampshire, said many Thompson backers will view McCain as not conservative enough and speculated that many will support Romney.

Romney said on Fox News that Thompson had been the only other Republican focused on pulling back together the Reagan coalition and that his withdrawal would help Romney's efforts to emerge as that candidate.

Giuliani also hoped to pick up Thompson's supporters, while Huckabee said that he expects that Thompson's withdrawal will boost his support among social conservatives.

Arlinghaus said Thompson's late entry into the race hurt him because he took several months to find a comfortable cadence on the campaign trail.

Thompson's failure shows that it is difficult to start a campaign so late and foolhardy to bypass New Hampshire, Arlinghaus said.

Thompson, who failed to make good on his initial promise to campaign actively in the Granite State, received just 1 percent of the vote there.

Thompson, 65, hoped to win over voters with his folksy style and his commitment to what he called clear conservatism. But staff members came and went, and Thompson's hope to woo religious conservatives was undercut by some of the movement's prominent leaders. James Dobson, head of the religious conservative group Focus on the Family, opposed Thompson's bid and mocked his style, saying he "can't speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail."

Thompson's difficulties were evident on one of his few trips to New Hampshire. He arrived late, saying he wanted to catch a football game on television, and made three campaign stops, none of them a traditional town hall-style meeting. He appeared at a gun factory, where many workers said they learned about his arrival at the last minute.

Thompson did succeed in infuriating Huckabee's campaign, which believes that Thompson's decision to remain in the race served only to help McCain, especially in South Carolina. In a high point of his campaign, Thompson challenged the former Arkansas governor in a debate earlier this month in South Carolina.

Huckabee has attributed his damaging South Carolina loss to McCain to "the Fred Thompson factor. We would have won handily if it weren't for that." McCain came in first with 33 percent, followed by Huckabee with 30 percent, and Thompson with 16 percent.

Huckabee is focused not just on his fourth-place standing in the polls in Florida, but also on party rules and delegate counts. Florida has 57 delegates available to the candidates in the primary under its winner-take-all system; another 57 will be awarded separately because the state was penalized by the national Republican Party for holding its primary early. Georgia, which holds one of the 21 Republican contests on Feb. 5, has 72 delegates available.

"There are more delegates in Georgia than there are in Florida," Huckabee said.

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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