Thompson leaves race, stranding Fla. supporters

By JOHN FRANK, Times Staff Writer
Published January 23, 2008

Republican Fred Thompson ended his presidential bid Tuesday, sending his Florida supporters scrambling for a candidate exactly one week before they go to the polls.

"Today, I have withdrawn my candidacy for president of the United States. I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort," the former Tennessee senator said in a short statement.

The decision ended a campaign that generated more hype in theory than in practice. It came days after Thompson's disappointing finish in the South Carolina primary, a contest he said he needed to win. His best finish was third in the Iowa caucuses.

In his statement, the actor-turned-politician did not say whether he would endorse any of his rivals. He supported Sen. John McCain in 2000.

"I'm sure there will be some massive competition for Fred's voters this week," said Johnnie Byrd, a former state House speaker from Plant City who endorsed Thompson but now favors McCain. "I've already received some calls."

But most Thompson backers shared the sentiment of Gary Cass, a leading Christian conservative. "Thompson represented the most conservative part of the party," said Cass, chairman of the Fort Lauderdale-based Christian Anti-Defamation League. "You look at the guys that are left and none of them have the conservative credentials."

The 65-year-old best known as a gruff district attorney on NBC's Law & Order began flirting with a White House run in March. A restless conservative GOP base labeled him the second coming of Ronald Reagan. His star power helped spur early energy on the campaign trail, but his easygoing style and oftentimes light schedule raised questions about his desire to be president.

A spate of artless answers to campaign-trail questions - on everything from the Terri Schiavo case to Osama bin Laden - didn't help matters.

Thompson visited Florida often in the early stages of the race and many of his national campaign staff hailed from the Sunshine State. Now, that loyal following is looking for a place to go.

"The stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines during this election," said Sandy Safley, a former Pinellas County legislator.

John Stemberger, head of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council in Orlando, said Thompson supporters will feel at home with fellow southerner, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. He should know; he made the switch a couple of months ago.

"I think that Mike Huckabee for social conservatives is the candidate," he said. "Nobody comes close to his credentials."

Zephyrhills council member Danny Burgess is now leaning toward McCain because of his military background, but it's not an easy decision.

Thompson "had my heart and soul as far as a candidates goes," Burgess said. "So it's hard to throw myself passionately behind someone else."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.