Fred Thompson, shown campaigning last week in South Carolina, announced Tuesday he is dropping out of the GOP race.AP file photo
A day after a bruising debate in South Carolina, the top Democrats parted ways Tuesday, with Sen. Hillary Clinton visiting delegate-rich California and Sen. Barack Obama staying behind to remain focused on what has become an essential state for him.
With U.S. and foreign financial markets still under strain, Clinton, Obama and South Carolina native John Edwards spent much of the day talking about the economy — at least when they were not sniping at each other.
Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani argued in South Florida campaign stops on Tuesday that they are best suited to guide the economy through turbulent times.
Meanwhile, Florida’s unpredictable primary fight got a fresh jolt of uncertainty Tuesday when Fred Thompson dropped out of the race. Thompson’s newly up-for-grabs supporters potentially could tip the balance among the top four contenders — Giuliani, Romney, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Clinton’s brief visit to California, the largest prize among the 23 states holding primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5, came as a new poll there shows her leading Obama — 39 percent to 27 percent — but with 20 percent still undecided.
Her absence from South Carolina until later this week has prompted some analysts to suspect she is ceding the state to Obama.
Still, she continues to advertise heavily in the state and her husband, the former president, made numerous stops Tuesday in South Carolina.
Before embarking on a swing through California and Arizona, Clinton met with reporters in Washington, where she suggested Obama had come to Monday’s debate “looking for a fight.”
She suggested her challenger was “very frustrated” and that losses in New Hampshire and Nevada had “apparently convinced him to adopt a new strategy.” Clinton charged that Obama’s rhetoric does not square with his record.
“I believe that words matter, but I think actions matter more,” she said. “He has a hard time responding to questions about his record.”
Clinton repeatedly brushed off reporters who asked if her husband had somehow crossed a line with his recent critiques of Obama.
Responding later, Obama charged that the Clintons have shown a willingness to “fudge the truth” and will “say anything to get a political or tactical advantage.”
Obama has charged that both Clintons have distorted his recent comments describing Ronald Reagan as a transformational figure to wrongly suggest that Obama is an admirer of his policies.
Even as Obama talked about the economy at an event here, there were subtle jabs at Clinton.
“In this time of economic anxiety and uncertainty, what this country needs most is a president who says what he means and means what he says,” Obama said, repeating a refrain he started using last week in Nevada.
Former North Carolina Sen. Edwards, meanwhile, tried to present himself as the parent amid two squabbling children. “I was proud to represent the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party last night,” he told supporters in Conway, S.C.
Obama picked up the endorsement of South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State.
In the GOP battle, addressing reporters at a Coral Springs, Fla., restaurant, Romney urged Congress to act quickly — within weeks — on a short-term economic-stimulus package. “It’s important we take very aggressive action to send the market away from a recession,” said Romney.
The former governor promoted his own stimulus package, which would give businesses a tax break on equipment purchases, secure mortgages for some at-risk homeowners and lower the 10 percent income tax rate to 7.5 percent.
Campaigning at TooJay’s Original Gourmet Deli in Palm Beach Gardens, Giuliani seized on the economic unease to tout his tax-cut plan and resume as mayor.
“This is a time when we need a president that understands how you stimulate an economy,” Giuliani said, citing his ability to bring down New York City’s high unemployment rate and reduce debt through tax cuts and spending restrictions.
“The things you have to worry about, to be concerned about, are not managing the economy. You have to worry about overspending, overtaxing, over-regulating and over-suing.”
Today, McCain and Huckabee make campaign stops in South Florida, a day before a crucial debate at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.