Thompson Exits, But Does Anyone Gain?

3736891Fred Thompson's exit from the presidential race comes after his once heralded candidacy failed to gain significant traction. However, it also comes after the South Carolina primary which, according to Saturday's results, showed that Thompson played a role in keeping Mike Huckabee from passing John McCain in the final tally – Thompson performed best in the Upstate area that was Huckabee's main source of votes, and he freely criticized the former Arkansas governor during the Palmetto State campaign. Thompson also nabbed the support of 15 percent of the state's primary voters who described themselves as evangelical Christians, according to CBS News exit polls. Huckabee received 43 percent.

This could be significant: Thompson never had much chance of winning any contests down the road, but he did demonstrate a capacity to influence the outcome in a spoiler role. But does the spoiler's exit help out Huckabee or hurt any other candidates? That question could be answered as soon as next week in Florida's Jan. 29 primary. That leads into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when five southern, conservative states – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia – are among the 21 holding GOP contests.

But Thompson's role as South Carolina spoiler doesn't mean his absence is automatically a boon for Huckabee. For one, aside from immigration, very little actually separated Thompson's positions in the campaign from those of John McCain – in fact, the two are friendly off the trail. The Arizona senator, now the closest thing the GOP has to a front-runner, could be an appealing choice for those who were considering Thompson, especially should the former Tennessee senator decide to endorse his old friend.

Plus, even if Huckabee wins those southern states, he's already expected to take one of them, his native Arkansas, and the other four provide only a small number of the overall delegates up for grabs. And if those are the only states Huckabee wins on Feb. 5, he would be marginalized as a regional candidate.

Still, Thompson has gotten the support of about 9 percent of Republicans in recent national polls as well as in Florida, and that support has to go somewhere. In a Florida race where only a few percentage points separate the top four contenders, where those voters go could make a huge difference in the final count.