COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson didn't drop out of the Republican presidential field after his disappointing finish in Saturday's South Carolina primary — but he sounded close to it.
About an hour after the polls closed, Thompson addressed a ballroom in a college student union, an event that featured as many students enjoying free beer as it did hardcore Thompson supporters. He delivered a lengthy soliloquy, speaking in the past tense about "clear conservatism," the cornerstone of his campaign.
"My friends, we will always be bound by a close bond because we have traveled a very special road together for a very special purpose," Thompson told the crowd. "It's never been about me, it's never even been about you. It's been about our country."
Thompson's campaign declined to say whether the speech was a concession, a swan song, a stump speech to signal that he's fighting on, or what. Campaign spokesmen wouldn't say what the former Tennessee senator's next move is.
"The campaign is still a campaign until it's not the campaign," said Rich Galen, a Thompson campaign senior adviser. "There's no hurry to make a decision, other than your deadline. I don't have anything to add — not tonight."
Thompson conceded earlier Saturday that he needed a win in South Carolina to keep his presidential campaign alive.
"We're not talking about anything less than an optimistic scenario," Thompson told reporters while strolling through a gun show in Irmo, S.C. "Victory is the goal . . . . We'll see in a few hours."
However, he dodged questions about whether he'd end his campaign if he didn't win in South Carolina.
"I've always said that I have to do very well here, there's no question about that, and I stand by that," he said.
Thompson entered the Republican presidential sweepstakes in September as the traditionalist conservative cure to the queasy feeling many Republicans felt about having to choose between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon; social moderate former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and maverick reformer Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Thompson's supporters saw him as Reaganesque — a successful movie and television actor with Capitol Hill credentials and a plainspoken, down-home Southern charm.
But Saturday night, many South Carolinians jilted Thompson for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister with strong appeal to Christian evangelicals, who are strong in South Carolina.
"What happened to Thompson? One word: Huckabee," said Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard. "He stole all his (Thompson's) votes. As Huckabee began to rise, he got more money, more mailings, and the values voters who were going to Fred switched allegiances to Huckabee."
Thompson's campaign had problems even before Huckabee's rise, however. He was generating enthusiastic anticipation last spring, but he didn't enter the race until after Labor Day — a delay that suggested that the man missed his cue.
"Timing seems to be a type of plague for Thompson — getting in too late, putting all his eggs in the South Carolina basket, Huckabee's rise," said Blease Graham, a University of South Carolina political science professor. "But as much as anything, there was an absence of a clear message. It was as if he was waiting for something."
As soon as Thompson entered the race, analysts began wondering aloud why he got in, saying that he didn't show the fire in the belly that's necessary to run successfully for president. The image of Thompson as a laid-back slowpoke became fodder for late-night television comedians.
Woodard said that Thompson finally appeared to hit his stride on the stump in the Palmetto State, speaking to overflow crowds in the past week.
"Here's what happens when you're a candidate — you get better as you go along," he said. "The problem is Huckabee's got a three-month jump on him. Fred is a good, tough candidate. If he was like this in September, things might be different."