Mike Huckabee Exits Republican Presidential Race

VIDEO: Mike Huckabees decision to forgo White House run leaves GOP field open.
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Count former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee out of the 2012 presidential race.

"All the factors say go, but my heart says no," Huckabee said tonight. "My answer is clear and firm, I will not seek the Republican nomination for president this year."

After more than a day of will-he-or-won't-he speculation about his intentions, Huckabee took to the airwaves of Fox News, which broadcasts his weekly television show, to make the announcement. He said the past few months "have been a time of deep personal reflection."

"I had come to believe that I would begin the race for president," he said, "but I won't be."

Before he broke that news, however, he listed a litany of reasons why he should.

"Polls have consistently put me at or near the top to be the Republican nominee," he said, and added he no longer had concerns "about raising the necessary funds" to mount a campaign.

"I don't have an issue with my family being supportive," he said, noting that his wife and children were supportive. Huckabee described his decision-making process as a "spiritual" journey.

"I'm a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and that relationship is far more important to me than any political office," he said.

Just hours before Saturday's announcement, Huckabee, 55, had piqued the interest of his supporters and political observers after word leaked out that he sent a letter to his closest confidantes hinting that "things will get even crazier" once "I pull the trigger Saturday night."

Until the show, even his closest advisers said Huckabee's decision remained a mystery to them, but some surmised that he would pass on a presidential bid.

"I have to assume he's probably not running," Huckabee's 2008 campaign manager Ed Rollins said in an interview with ABC News before the announcement.

"I wish him well," Rollins said after Huckabee's show ended. "Obviously he made a tough and personal decision."

"He's never gotten up and looked in the mirror and said, 'There's the next president of the United States," Rollins said. "If you don't do that, you're not going to be the most viable candidate."

In the e-mail message he sent to close aides Friday, Huckabee wrote that it was his "sworn obligation to Fox" to announce his 2012 plans on their network first, referring to "promises" and "some possible legal considerations."

But Dianne Brandi, executive vice president of legal and business affairs at Fox News, said in a statement in the midst of Huckabee's show: "There is nothing in his contract prohibiting him from making his announcement where he chooses."

Had Huckabee decided to jump into the race, he would have almost certainly enjoyed a significant base of support at the outset.

He has been at or near the top of polls nationally as well as in critical early nominating states like Iowa -- a state he won during the 2008 Republican presidential primary. The most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll released last month put Huckabee in third place in the not-yet-settled Republican field, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and real estate mogul Donald Trump.

He also would have been able to take command of a campaign-in-waiting that Rollins, his long-time adviser, had been building up over the last six months. Rollins had lined up a campaign manager, a communications director and a finance director.

"I delivered him the people that could go raise $50 million," Rollins said, adding that he had put together "an all-star operative team far more experienced than those who we had last time."

The Huckabee operation was even ready to hire state directors in key primary battlegrounds like South Carolina and Florida.

If he had sought the GOP presidential nomination, Rollins told ABC, "on Monday I could push the button and the campaign would start to unfold."

"I know I'm going to deeply disappoint a lot of people I love," Huckabee said. "So many good and dear people have put forth extraordinary effort, and they did it without any assurance that I would even mount a campaign and it pains me -- seriously pains me -- to let them down."

With Huckabee declining to enter the presidential race, the race for his endorsement is already on.

"I'm going to gladly continue doing what I do and hopefully helping other in their campaigns for Congress, governorships and other positions," he said without offering a firm indication whether he would be getting involved in presidential primary politics.

No sooner did Huckabee finish his remarks than real estate mogul and potential presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared on the screen, calling Huckabee a "terrific guy."

"A lot of people are very happy that he will not be running, especially other candidates," Trump said. "So, Mike, enjoy the show, you're ratings are terrific, you're making a lot of money, you're building a beautiful house in Florida. Good luck."

Several other possible candidates, including former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as well former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who officially jumped into the race last week, also weighed in on Huckabee's decision.

"Had Governor Huckabee decided to run, there is no question he would have been a frontrunner in the 2012 campaign for president," Gingrich said, adding that he "will remain a major force for conservatism and he will play a major role in shaping America's future."

Huntsman said, "I'm confident that he will continue to be a positive force in the national conversation no matter his future endeavors and I look forward to his continued friendship."

And Pawlenty did not hide his goal of winning the backing of voters who might have been in Huckabee's camp.

"Mike and I agree our nation is facing big challenges and desperately needs new leadership," Pawlenty said. "And I plan to work hard to earn the support of the millions of Americans who have supported him."

In particular, Pawlenty is likely hoping to pick up some of that support in Iowa, a state where Huckabee's appeal to conservatives and evangelical Christians helped him win the caucuses there during the last presidential election cycle.

Dave Davidson, the chief organizer of the Iowa-based group, "Stuck on Huck" and the co-author of a self-published book, "More Than 57 Reasons Mike Huckabee Should Become President," was holding out hope on Saturday that Huckabee would jump into race.

"Here's a guy who can probably beat Barack Obama," Davidson said in an interview. "You've got to put your ace on the mound to strike this guy out. You've got a whole dugout full of all-stars, and you're going to send in the best guy. Mike Huckabee's the best guy."

Since his loss to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 GOP primary, Huckabee signed lucrative contracts for a syndicated radio show ("The Huckabee Report"), his weekly Fox News television program ("Huckabee."), and for several books, including his most recent, "A Simple Government." He has also been a regular on the lecture circuit and even hosts pricey tour groups to destinations like Israel and Alaska.

That work has enabled Huckabee to live comfortably. He and his wife, Janet, began work on a multi-million dollar home near the beach in Walton County, Florida. "If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income," Huckabee told reporters at an event in Washington, D.C., in February.

The intrigue about his plans began Friday morning when he teased on his radio that he would make "a very important announcement" on television one day later.

"This weekend be sure to catch my Fox News television show," Huckabee said. "A very important announcement coming this Saturday."

He did not elaborate and even the director of Huckabee's political action committee, HuckPAC, said he was in the dark.

"I'm not exactly sure what the content's going to be," Huckabee aide Hogan Gidley told ABC News at the time, adding, "He doesn't go around throwing around a big announcement for nothing."

Later that day, Woody Fraser, the executive producer of Huckebee's Fox News show, said: "Governor Huckabee will announce tomorrow night on his program whether or not he intends to explore a presidential bid. He has not told anyone at FOX News Channel his decision."

The mystery continued to unfold in a series of appearances on Fox programs before culiminating with Saturday's show.

Rollins said he and other aides spent "hundreds of hours" working to assemble a campaign team with "no compensation." He said that after the 2008 race, Huckabee was initially interested in running again in 2016, but that the former governor decided to push up the timeline after seeing the big Republican wins during the 2010 midterm elections, the sluggish pace of the country's economic recovery and President Obama's declining approval ratings.

Rollins said he and Huckabee began discussing a potential 2012 campaign plan over dinner the night after Election Day last November -- at Huckabee's request.

Before Saturday, Huckabee had publicly expressed reluctance about another try for the GOP nomination, saying in February that while retail politics is "one of the things that I'd enjoy the most" raising the huge sums of money it would take to win primaries and the general election is "not what I do best."

Earlier this year, he said his decision-making process was "based on the personal experience of having been there, done that."

"If you've jumped out of an airplane you have a whole lot better understanding of what you're going to do the next time you're going to do it," Huckabee said.

Huckabee began his program Saturday by saying, "I'm going to end the rumors and tell you first-hand" before spending much of the next hour interviewing guests on topics ranging from the killing of Osama bin Laden to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's health care speech last week to the disastrous flooding along the Mississippi River.

He also featured an interviews with actor Mario Lopez, best known for his role in the television comedy, "Saved By The Bell" and American rock legend, Ted Nugent, who Huckabee described as a "patriot and a friend." Nugent performed the song, "Cat Scratch Fever" -- with Huckabee playing bass -- minutes before the former Arkansas governor made his announcement.

Huckabee now joins Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence on the sidelines of the Republican presidential primary race.

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