Xcel Energy Center, Saint Paul, Minnesota — Five Republicans had slogged through the compressed primary election season to emerge with delegates committed to them, yet none was close to winning the nomination outright as the 2008 GOP convention opened on Labor Day.
The names of three alternative candidates had been floated by their respective supporters. Vice President Dick Cheney had quickly removed his name from contention, leaving Fred Thompson and Jeb Bush to vie with Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Duncan Hunter for the nomination.
The first ballot was a formality, with a handful of uncommitted delegates voting for Thompson and Bush.
The second ballot saw Thompson erode the delegate support of Giuliani, McCain, Gingrich and Hunter, while fully half of Mitt Romney’s 512 delegates jumped ship and voted for Bush.
At the end of the second ballot, the tally stood at Giuliani 598; McCain 506; Thompson 414; Bush 365; Romney 256; Gingrich 216; and Hunter 128. The totals after the third, fourth and fifth ballots were virtually unchanged.
Then, just before the sixth ballot, Romney withdrew his name from the race. With hints of a cabinet post or the vice presidency in his future, Romney announced that he was throwing his support to Bush, thus catapulting the former Florida governor into the lead.
The seventh through the eleventh ballots yielded precious little additional support for anyone, but on the twelfth ballot, Thompson surged ahead with the support of Gingrich and Hunter. Apparently, Thompson had been quite persuasive in his personal conversations with both of them. He had asked Gingrich if he had ever envisioned himself as Secretary of State, and his call to Hunter intimated that the former California congressman’s experience as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee would serve him very well should he be tapped as Defense Secretary. No promises were made, of course. It was just idle speculation between friends.
Giuliani’s dream of making the leap from Gracie Mansion to the White House, with 9/11 as his springboard, was disappearing before his eyes. He knew what was coming as he took the call from the White House. The next GOP nominee, the president told him, was going to be either Jeb Bush or Fred Thompson, and it was obvious whom the president would prefer to see follow in his footsteps.
With Giuliani’s withdrawal, the delegate totals after the thirteenth ballot stood as follows: Jeb Bush 1,219; Fred Thompson 758; and John McCain 506. It was 3:34 a.m.
At precisely 4:00, a bleary-eyed John McCain took the podium.
“It is time to put an end to this uncertainty and to unite behind a single candidate for the presidency,” he told the delegates. I have spent my life in the sacrificial service of my country. The time has come, my dear friends, to make another sacrifice. Therefore, I hereby withdraw my name from consideration for this nomination and ask every one of my remaining 506 delegates to support my friend, the Honorable Fred Thompson from the great state of Tennessee.”
The hall went silent, and then erupted into simultaneous cheers and jeers from opposite ends of the arena. Jeb Bush had been within striking distance, but on the fourteenth ballot, the tally stood at Thompson 1,264; Bush 1,219. All that remained in the next sixteen hours was for Fred Thompson to choose a running mate.
“After last night, there was never any doubt in my mind,” Thompson said as he accepted the nomination of the convention on Thursday evening. “I called Governor Bush in the wee hours of the morning and told him I would be honored to have him on the ticket with me. He told me that just as his father had agreed to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate after a spirited 1980 primary campaign, he would accept my offer if the delegates would have him. I assured him I didn’t think that would be a problem.”
And so it was that Republicans Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Jeb Bush of Florida went forward into the 2008 General Election campaign to do political battle with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton of New York and her running mate, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.