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With Thompson Out, Who Benefits Most?

The decision by former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson to end his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination removes a conservative voice from the field even as the remaining Republican candidates crisscross Florida in search of votes in advance of the state's Jan. 29 primary.

Fred Thompson
Thompson's departure from the GOP field could benefit more than one of the remaining candidates. (AP)

Thompson had long been considered a sideshow in the race for the nomination, a place that his disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina's primary on Saturday only served to confirm. It was a remarkable rise and fall for a candidate who just six months ago was considered one of the top contenders for the nomination. That fall left admirers and detractors trying to understand what his ultimate legacy will be on the contest.

Mark Corallo, a Republican consultant involved in the first days of Thompson's bid, summed up the difficulty of coming to grips with what the campaign meant:

"His legacy is one of missed opportunities, broken promises and an unfortunate disdain for the process," said Corallo. "His legacy is also one of having been the only candidate seeking the Republican nomination who was
willing to talk real substance, take a true, consistent conservative approach to every issue, of actually challenging the notion of big government, championing federalism and being honest about the looming entitlement train wreck that is going to bankrupt our kids. He was a lackluster candidate who would have been a great president."

Alex Vogel, a Republican lobbyist and close associate of former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), offered a similar evaluation of Thompson's candidacy. "Fred's legacy in this race, unfortunately, is one of lost opportunity," Vogel said. "He entered the field at a time of chaos with a clear window into the field. Whether it was a reality or not, the perception that he didn't work hard stuck with him - and his own scheduling didn't help to shake it off."

What's clear is that with Thompson out of the race, the crowd on the ideological right grows slightly less, well, crowded. "It would probably be best for John [McCain] if there were still three potentially viable opponents splitting up the Florida pie," said former McCain senior adviser John Weaver. "But this is a bridge he has to cross sooner rather later anyway."

Florida's primary is the first "closed" event of the '08 primary season -- meaning that no one other than registered Republicans can participate. As such, the Jan. 29 primary is likely to give an outsized voice to conservative voters. Former governors Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and Mitt Romney (Mass.) made the most concerted efforts to court these conservatives in the pre-Florida contests. But in South Carolina, the two governors competed directly with Thompson -- and to a lesser extent McCain.

The exit polls from the Palmetto State underscore Thompson's appeal to the most conservative GOP voters. Among the voters who described themselves as "very conservative" (roughly one in every three participants), Huckabee led the way with 41 percent of the vote, but Thompson claimed 22 percent (McCain placed third with 19 percent followed by Romney with 16 percent).

Thanks to Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen and his "Behind the Numbers" blog -- a must-bookmark for data-heads and political junkies -- we have even more in-depth information about what Thompson's supporters (or ex supporters as the case may be) in the early states looked like.

In Iowa, where Thompson placed a distant third, 50 percent of those backing him identified themselves as evangelicals. That number rose to 60 percent in last Saturday's South Carolina primary. Seventy percent of Thompson's Iowa backers identified themselves as "very conservative" while 47 percent of Thompson supporters in South Carolina said they were "very conservative."

"Based on South Carolina, a state that Thompson worked pretty hard, his departure would seem to help Huckabee and Romney probably more so than McCain," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.

Given Thompson's strengths with very conservative voters and evangelicals, it seems as though Huckabee should be the obvious beneficiary. But Huckabee hasn't won a contest since Jan. 3 (Iowa), and his near-constant dearth of campaign cash and organization raises real questions about whether he will be able to capitalize on Thompson's departure in Florida.

Enter Romney who is campaigning hard for the votes of conservatives in Florida and, because of his strong fundraising and willingness to contribute millions of dollars from his own pocket, will almost certainly spend the most money on reaching voters in the Sunshine State. Romney has been trying to get a clear shot at McCain from the ideological right for the entirety of the campaign, and Thompson's departure coupled with Huckabee's uncertain commitment to the state give the former Massachusetts governor the best chance he's had yet.

While Thompson's exit could well help Romney or Huckabee in the short run, his departure could accrue to McCain's benefit in the long-term battle for the nomination. First, and most importantly, if Thompson endorses (and that is a big "if"), he would likely turn to McCain -- one of his closest friends during their time in the Senate together.

Second, again thanks to Jon Cohen, a look at The Post's last national poll suggests that McCain may gain a very slight boost from Thompson's departure. If Thompson is eliminated and his supporters' second choices are re-allocated, that poll showed McCain leading the Republican field with 30 percent -- two percent higher than he received with Thompson included in the ballot test. The only other candidate to make gains with the reallocation of Thompson supporters was Rudy Giuliani, who went from 15 percent with Thompson in to 18 percent with him out.

Given the whimper with which Thompson left the race, all of this talk about what his departure means for the race may well be overblown. Ultimately, voters will pick between the candidates still in the race, not those who were once in it.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 22, 2008; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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