South Carolina claimed a victim: Fred Thompson drops out

Fred Thompson, once celebrated as the savior of the Republican Party, dropped out of the race today, issuing a brief statement: "Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for President of the United States.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."

Not that this is a surprise. Thompson's very weak third in South Carolina on Saturday had doomed his candidacy and the candidate had no where to turn given that he had put all his eggs in the basket of the Palmetto state. He made that state the focus of his campaign, but it was too little too late as he never caught fire and barely edged Romney.

Thompson formally entered the race in September, but that was after months of speculation and public preparation -- and I'm not even speaking of his visits to early-states. As the GOP base and establishment were dissatisfied with their options and looking for a conservative candidate, Thompson suddenly appeared as a savior, a true conservative who could rally his party's faithful. And then he waited and waited before starting his campaign, leaving his rivals ample time to address some concerns, raise money and get endorsements.

When he entered, he was generally polling a solid second in national polls and regularly led in South Carolina surveys -- check this post I wrote a few days after Thompson's announcement about his poll bounce. But that quickly faded as Thompson kept committing errors and quickly acquired a reputation as a lazy campaigner who did not really want to be out there looking for votes. Whether or not that was fair, Thompson's problem was simply that he came in way too late, and it is striking how much his trajectory (celebrated savior, lousy campaigner and early exit) resembles that of Wesley Clark in 2004.

The main reason why Thompson never really took off was Mike Huckabee's surge. Huckabee's social conservative base was the group of voters Huckabee was the most dependent on (as was evident in South Carolina. And if in the spring Huckabee was polling at 1% and was not an option for disaffected conservatives, that was no longer the case in September. Huck's second place showing in Ames had put him on the map and he quickly moved to coalesce support in South Carolina and in Iowa -- the two states Thompson was going to go for -- which deprived Thompson of any space.

How does this affect the rest of the race? Had Fred Thompson retired last week, Huckabee might have won South Carolina. And going forward, Thompson's exit means that Huckabee has a much better chance of rallying the social conservative vote and getting a few wins in the South come February 5th. More immediately, Thompson's bowing out means that the race will be less fractured in Florida. In particular, the conservative vote will not divide itself between three candidates (Huck, Thompson, Romney) but only between two. And that is bad news for McCain and Giuliani who were hoping that Romney would be held down as Huck and Fred siphon votes away from him.

Down the line, Romney can celebrate having one less candidate fracturing the race and McCain's hope of getting victories in closed primaries with narrow pluralities gets much more difficult with one less candidate (which means the victor will have to get a higher percentage of the vote).

But things are obviously not that simple: Thompson wants McCain to win, and there is little doubt at this hour that he will endorse the AZ Senator shortly. Endorsements don't usually carry that much weight but that could help McCain offset the Thompson withdrawal and get enough votes from Thompson backers that he will not suffer to much. Thompson's endorsement will also allow McCain to beef up his conservative credentials and perhaps reassure some in the base.