The Drum (ABC online)

By John Barron

The decision by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and businessman Donald Trump not to contest the Republican Party's presidential nomination was telling because it seems in both cases it was all about weighing money, celebrity and influence against potential political power.

It's not unusual for presidential candidates to express reluctance to run - in part because it's a bad look to be loudly proclaiming "I want to be president!" and partly because it's an exhausting, intrusive two-year marathon, followed by the most demanding job on the planet.

For Huckabee, despite polling better than any Republican in a matchup with president Obama, there seems to have been a long and genuine period of indecision - weighing the chance to be leader of the free world against the best-paid job of his life - as a media pundit. Campaign finance regulations in the US forbid presidential candidates having a private income - a pay check from Fox amounts to an illegal contribution.

The weekly Huckabee TV program on Fox News Saturday night was taped, but not even his producers knew whether he'd be a candidate until the end when "the Governor" came on live to reveal; "I will not seek the Republican nomination for president this year... I am gladly going to continue doing what I do." But he also pointed out it wasn't because he didn't think it was a race he could win; "All the factors say go, but my heart says no."

Mike Huckabee is a brilliant retail politician; he is folksy, articulate and has the big trustworthy cow eyes that kept getting Ferris Bueller out of trouble on his filmic day off. Huckabee's aw-shucks schtick plays particularly well in small-town America, and happily for his last presidential run in 2008, the road to the White House starts in quintessentially small-town American Iowa. He won the crucial first-to-vote state despite starting with almost no money and no name-recognition by shaking thousands of hands and kissing plenty of babies. But while he won votes, he struggled to raise significant amounts of cash and his campaign faded after that early success.

Huckabee has been many things in his life; Baptist Pastor, State Governor, diet-book author and country music bass guitarist - but one thing he's never been is wealthy, until he packed in politics for punditry.

Strangely, after Huckabee's program on Saturday, another potential candidate with a TV show - businessman Donald Trump popped up like a news anchor with a "Special Announcement" that Mike Huckabee was not running; "This might be considered by some people - not necessarily me - bad news because he is a terrific guy and frankly I think he'd be a terrific president. But a lot of people will be very happy that he will not be running - especially other candidates. So Mike enjoy the show, your ratings are terrific, you're making a lot of money, your building a beautiful house in Florida - good luck".

The Donald's "Special Announcement" was one of two he taped - one if Huckabee decided to run, and the one that aired once he decided not to. But it immediately it had politicos analysing Trump's every word - is Trump running or not? Within 48 hours they too had their answer, he was not; "I have spent the past several months unofficially campaigning and recognise that running for public office cannot be done half-heartedly. Ultimately, however, business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector."

It's worth noting that two days before Trump made his announcement, NBC executives told him they would continue The Apprentice with a new host if needed. That called the gadfly's bluff, and like Huckabee, Trump chose money, celebrity and influence over political power or at least the bully pulpit of a presidential campaign, which while it attracts attention, doesn't pay the bills.

While Trump's withdrawal will have little impact on those who do run, given he has never held elected office and was unlikely to be anything other than a distraction, Huckabee's non-run in 2012 could be a game-changer.

It may benefit another likeable ex-governor and evangelical Christian Tim Pawlenty - who has already hired a number of Huckabee's 2008 Iowa staff and now has a real shot at winning that important caucus. It also provides an opening for the better-financed Mitt Romney, who finished second to Huckabee in Iowa three years ago after splurging $25-million on his campaign but failing to fully overcome concerns about his Mormonism.

On Monday, just as Trump was announcing he wouldn't run, Romney's fundraisers were working the phones and extracting more than $10-million in pledges from their donor-list in a single day.

But it could also be that the biggest winner from Mike Huckabee's decision to sit this one out is president Obama. For all their political differences, Huckabee is one of the few politicians of his generation to match Obama for pure likeability - if Obama is a rock star, Huckabee is a familiar old crooner sitting by the fireside in a Christmas cardigan.

The reluctant Republican presidential field must in part reflect their dwindling hopes of toppling Obama next year. And Huckabee knows that 2016, when Obama can't run again, isn't that far away, and until then he'll be a fixture in many living rooms on a Saturday night.

John Barron is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.