WASHINGTON -- Actor and former senator Fred Thompson abandoned his presidential campaign yesterday, making an early exit from a race that he entered perhaps too late to gain traction in a crowded Republican field.
In a characteristically low-key manner, Thompson gave no news conference and stayed off television, preferring simply to e-mail a one-paragraph statement to reporters.
"Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for President of the United States," Thompson said in the statement. "I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort."
Thompson's departure ended a campaign that might be best remembered for the candidate's ambling pace and a series of missed opportunities. With the Republican field splintered, Thompson had been urged to join the race last summer under the premise that the well-known actor-politician could unify social conservatives, economic conservatives and national security conservatives. But Thompson took his time, engaging in a long listening tour and months of planning. He didn't enter until early September.
"I wish we would have been in the race in June instead of September," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a fellow Tennessee Republican who backed Thompson's candidacy. "When he hit his stride in December in Iowa and in January in South Carolina, a lot of people were already committed."
Wamp said Thompson was hurt by the fact that "he's not a political animal." At the same time, Wamp said, Thompson had shown fire as the campaign went on, and he mentioned Thompson as a vice presidential candidate.
"I believe he would add a tremendous amount to the ticket," the congressman said. "He is a very consistent conservative. As a running mate for a McCain or a Romney, he would bring geographical balance. He's got presence. He's got stature."
Thompson has been widely expected to endorse Arizona Sen. John McCain, a longtime friend. But supporters said yesterday that Thompson had made no decision, and that an endorsement is not expected soon.
It was unclear what effect Thompson's departure would have on the race. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said yesterday that Thompson's presence in the race had cost Huckabee the votes of Christian conservatives in South Carolina's primary on Saturday, where Huckabee placed second, behind McCain.
A Thompson spokesman said yesterday there were no plans for any news conference or other event to announce the departure or an endorsement. Supporters and one family member said that Thompson's mother, who lives outside Nashville, is ill, and that Thompson has been at her side the past two days.
When Thompson entered the race, he was at or near the lead in national polls. As a candidate, he slowly began to drop. He could be unpolished and underwhelming on the stump, a tall man who had a habit of looking down and showing audiences the top of his bald head.
His rivals moved quickly to grab constituencies Thompson needed. Huckabee won over social conservatives, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney bested Thompson for the support of economic conservatives. McCain revived his moribund campaign and claimed the national security issue as his own.
After a third-place finish in Iowa and even weaker performances in New Hampshire and Michigan, Thompson said he needed a strong showing in the first primary in his native South to stay in the race. But in that primary, in South Carolina, he finished a distant third behind McCain and Huckabee.
He had been expected to drop out immediately. But, unwilling to be rushed, he told South Carolina supporters, "It's maybe too early to declare victory. We told our folks to vote late, so they'll probably still be tricklin' in."
The campaign stood out for Thompson's attempts to run almost as the un-candidate, a Southern gentleman who did not need the job or even want to run but thought he could make a difference as president. Thompson, who is an experienced Washington lawyer and sometimes lobbyist, showcased his contempt for conventional political rituals, scheduling few public events, refusing to wear hats given him by supporters and declining to interrupt rivals during debates.
Thompson won praise for rolling out policy positions on difficult issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and the cost of entitlements. "He really became the standard bearer for the conservative cause in this race on the major issues of the day, from immigration reform to global security to tax policy to entitlement reform," said Wamp.
But management troubles and strategic missteps drew more headlines than his policies. He went through two staff shake-ups before he formally entered the race, and there were reports of advisers clashing with his wife, a Republican operative who helped run the campaign.
Joe Mathews writes for the Los Angeles Times.