GOP Race Shakes Up Before Big Game

WASHINGTON – Defeat in South Carolina took a heavy toll on two Republican Christian favorites this week. Early evangelical darling Fred Thompson called it quits Tuesday and former rival Mike Huckabee admitted he was thinking of an exit plan in case of defeat.

Experts had already predicted that Thompson would fold if he did not win the state. His campaign was out of cash and the former "Law & Order" actor was performing low in national polls.

"He's really been good lately, but it's too late," CNN analyst Bill Bennett said of the former Tennessee senator after South Carolina results began to come in. "If you're a Southern conservative and you can't make it in South Carolina, it's over."

He finished third in Iowa, fifth in Michigan and Nevada, sixth in New Hampshire and a distant second in Wyoming. In South Carolina, he finished third behind John McCain and Huckabee.

"Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for president of the United States," Thompson said in a statement.

"I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort. Jeri and I will always be grateful for the encouragement and friendship of so many wonderful people," he said.

Thompson had entered the race in September, much later than his Republican rivals who had already begun campaigning and fundraising. Although he was an early favorite of evangelicals, who saw him as a positive alternative to pro-abortion and then frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, he was abandoned when Huckabee began performing better in polls and debates.

Some blamed his loss on his lackluster campaigning style, criticizing the former senator's seeming lack of enthusiasm and passion for the presidential race.

Meanwhile, the other southern conservative in the race is also facing his own set of woes – shortage of money and a string of defeats – but he is not ready to give up yet and is looking to restrategize his game plan.

Following Huckabee's loss in South Carolina – a nearly must-win state for him – a lot of wind was taken out of his campaign and money dried up fast. As a result, top advisers to the campaign are working without pay and some aides have left, the campaign said Tuesday according to The Associated Press.

The campaign's top adviser Ed Rollins said the remaining funds will be diverted towards possible television ads in vital states. Huckabee told reporters late Monday that he is evaluating the situation in Florida daily and deciding whether to continue campaigning in the state.

"I don't want to abandon Florida yet," Huckabee said, according to The Associated Press. "We have not come to the conclusion that Florida is out of play."

Financial difficulty has also caused the campaign to stop arranging charter flights, hotel reservations and other accommodations to help reporters cover the candidate's activities. Although news organizations pay their own expenses, empty seats on charter planes cost the campaign money.

Rollins said the campaign plans to run some ads on cable stations in Florida, but it cannot afford broadcast rates, according to AP.

The former Arkansas governor is considering concentrating his effort and limited resources on potentially overlooked Southern states for "Super Tuesday," Feb. 5, when more than 20 states go to the polls, according to the New York Times.

"We don't have enough people to try to field staff in all of these states," Huckabee said. "So what we'll do is put a leaner team together."

His campaign raised only about $2.3 million in the first three quarters of last year, less than five percent of what his three main competitors raised. His Iowa win drew several millions of dollars in new contribution, but he spent relatively heavy in South Carolina in hopes a win would help his campaign regain momentum.

On the flight from Orlando to Atlanta Monday night, Huckabee acknowledged that he was considering how to plan for his defeat.

"If the campaign doesn't make it all the way we want to walk away completely in the black," Huckabee said.

Five candidates – Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney – remain in the Republican race.

The GOP pack will now head south to the delegate-rich state of Florida, where Giuliani has been waiting for them, for the Jan. 29 primary. The former New York mayor has sat out the early primaries and has put all his eggs in the Florida and Super Tuesday basket.

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