Iowa largely a non-event for McCain, Thompson

DES MOINES, Iowa – Neither Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) nor former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) received a strong message from Thursday’s Iowa GOP caucus. For very different reasons, their tight battle over third place wound up being very anti-climactic for both of them.

A strong third-place showing for McCain in a state he skipped in his 2000 campaign would have given the Arizona senator lots of momentum heading into the all-important New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.

Thompson, meanwhile, wasn’t provided much of a signal about whether he should succumb to rumors of his possible exit from the race. He continued to insist Thursday night that he planned to stay in but also seemed to leave the door open to an exit.

“We’ll have to look at the final numbers, and we’ll have to look at our money situation and all of that,” Thompson said. “But it looks like somebody’s going to need to carry a strong, consistent conservative message, and it looks like it ought to be me.”

The two were battling for third place with 93 percent of precincts reporting. Thompson led by less than 300 votes out of more than 100,000 cast.

Like Huckabee in Iowa, McCain is in a very tight race with Romney in New Hampshire. The most recent polls show the senator with a slight lead or tied with the Iowa runner-up.

McCain made a brief return trip to Iowa before Thursday’s caucuses but was in the Granite State when the voters went out to caucus.

He emphasized after Huckabee’s win that he did not run ads in the state but also did not claim any grand truths about his own campaign, instead calling it Huckabee’s day.

“I think that the lesson of this election in Iowa is that, one, you can’t buy an election in Iowa, and two, that negative campaigns don’t work,” McCain said. “They don't work there, and they don’t work here in New Hampshire. They’re not going to work.”

After spending much of the last 24 hours denying rumors and reports that he might drop out if he does not finish strong in Iowa, Thompson said Thursday night that he wanted to continue.

The Thompson campaign on Wednesday issued a press release assuring that he would participate in the New Hampshire debates. But a third- or fourth-place finish in Iowa does not meet the early hype the campaign generated.

His finish closely aligned with recent polling on the race.

“Looks like some people are ready to go on; sounds good to me,” Thompson said in an upbeat and brief address to supporters Thursday night. “I don’t know whether it’s going to be a definitive third or tied for third, but it looks to me like we’re going to have a ticket to the next dance.”