Thompson may drop out, back McCain
By: Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen
Jan 2, 2008 11:05 PM EST
Fred Thompsonâ€™s departure could shake up the race more than his continued presence. If Thompson exits, he's expected to endorse John McCain.
Politics, Political News, Campaign 2008 - Politico.com
DES MOINES, Iowa â€” Several Republican officials close to Fred Thompsonâ€™s presidential campaign said they expect the candidate will drop out of the race within days if he finishes poorly in Thursdayâ€™s Iowa caucus.
Thompsonâ€™s campaign, which last spring and summer was generating fevered anticipation in the media and with some Republican activists, has never ignited nationally, and there are no signs of a late spark happening here in Iowa, where even a third-place finish is far from assured.
This reality â€” combined with a fundraising drought â€” left well-connected friends and advisers of Thompson Wednesday evening predicting that he will pull the plug on hype and hope before the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.
Thompsonâ€™s departure could shake up the race more than his continued presence. Friends and advisers said they have long considered it likely that if the lobbyist-actor is forced from the race he would endorse John McCain, his former Senate colleague who lately has been staging a political revival in New Hampshire.
â€śWithout a solid third-place finish, thereâ€™s no point in going on,â€ť a Thompson adviser said Wednesday. â€śIt was an honorable race, and he turned out to be a good candidate. The moment had just passed.â€ť
A Thompson campaign source said there is â€śa strong likelihoodâ€ť that if Thompson comes in a distant third in Iowa, with less than 15 percent of the vote, he would drop out soon â€” most likely before this weekendâ€™s New Hampshire presidential debates.
Are there three tickets out of Iowa?
Huckabee makes controversial visit to Leno
Pols struggle to spin final Iowa polls
The Thompson sources said they were describing a consensus expectation that is now widespread among his political circle, not announcing a decision that the candidate himself has definitively reached.
But Thompson lately has been dropping clear signals that he has reached an up-or-out moment of his own. On Wednesday he took the unusual step of raising expectations for himself at a time when most other candidates are trying to lower them.
When asked what Iowa results heâ€™d be happy with, Thompson held up two fingers, indicating a second-place finish, according to reporters who were with him.
He did something similar on Sunday, when Thompson â€” apparently in a semi-jocular mood â€” dismayed his staff by telling reporters that he needed to finish second in the caucuses, a bar that nobody here expects him to cross.
Thompson aides have long said he needs an early victory to serve as a bridge to connect him to the key Southern contests that he envisioned propelling him to the nomination. Thompson had pinned his hopes entirely on Iowa serving that role. But every recent poll has showed him lagging in a distant third.
Thompson picked up a key endorsement in the backing of Rep. Steve King, a conservative who represents the western part of the state, and had won acclaim from conservative activists for his closing message to Iowa voters, a Web video arguing that the Democratic candidates are all running to the left and beholden to special interests like the National Education Association.
Thompson, the former U.S. senator from Tennessee and â€śLaw and Orderâ€ť actor, brought a dash of celebrity and down-home humor to the strait-laced field of Republican candidates. But conservativesâ€™ excitement quickly dissipated after he got off to a sluggish start and showed only sporadic enthusiasm for campaigning.
Recently, his stump speeches have dripped with contempt for the press and the campaign process, and this week he even joked about napping. On New Yearâ€™s Day, he held just one campaign event at a time when the top candidates were going full throttle.
His war chest was so depleted that he was unable to advertise on television after Christmas, and was only able to get back on the air in Iowa by blasting a stream of e-mails pleading for contributions.
Friends and advisers emphasized that no deal has been cut to have Thompson endorse McCain. But they note that there would be a logic to doing so soon, in order to help a friend and colleague at a moment when he needs it most. In turn, Thompson might be named attorney general in a McCain administration.
Trying to fend off rumors about an impending demise of the campaign, Thompson issued a news release Wednesday afternoon saying he plans to participate in debates in New Hampshire on Saturday and Sunday. Thompson was alone in issuing such a release: No other campaign thought that was necessary.
Despite the air of doom hovering over his candidacy, Thompson has not yet shared his intentions with the campaign or indicated to friends that he has reached a decision in tandem with his wife, Jeri, an influential adviser. Campaign underlings continue to make plans as far ahead as Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.
â€śDoing well in Iowa means exceeding expectations, and Fred has been exceeding expectations for more than 40 years,â€ť said Karen Henretty, a Thompson spokeswoman. â€śThursdayâ€™s results arenâ€™t likely to close any chapters.â€ť
But other advisers to Thompson described his campaign as â€śbrokeâ€ť and said that without a shot of momentum from Iowa, continuing the campaign would be pointless and impractical.
Thompson advisers expect Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to claim the two top spots in the Iowa caucuses. The main suspense is whether Thompson will finish close enough to get credit for a surprisingly strong performance, coaxing him to keep battling, or will finish far behind.
Thompson and McCain had a close relationship until the former actor entered the White House race. In 2000, Thompson was one of just four Senate Republicans to endorse McCainâ€™s presidential bid.
At the start of this year, Thompson was even making phone calls on behalf of McCainâ€™s campaign. Thompson has built little support in New Hampshire, so his endorsement would not mean a lot for McCain there.
But Thompson has been near the top of most polls in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Jan. 19. So his backing there could help McCain capitalize on any momentum he picks up in the first two contests.