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Mike Huckabee won’t endorse before Iowa–and maybe not at all

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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With Iowa's Republican presidential caucus up for grabs, all eyes have been on Mike Huckabee, the contest's 2008 GOP winner whose potential endorsement in the race would surely be a game changer for any of the aspiring presidential hopefuls.

But Huckabee is not going to play the role of kingmaker—at least not right now. In an interview with Yahoo News, the former Arkansas governor says he won't formally endorse a Republican candidate before January's Iowa caucuses—and he's likely to stay neutral throughout the primaries.

"I really doubt I will endorse anyone in the primary process," Huckabee told Yahoo News. "I'm still holding the right to do that, but I don't see at this point a reason it makes a whole lot of sense for me."

Why? For one thing, Huckabee says it's probably better for him to stay on the sidelines because of his status as a Fox News host and commentator. ("If I were to endorse one of the candidates, I would have one ingrate and several other people who would hate my guts for the rest of time," he joked.)

But the onetime presidential hopeful also admits he's like much of the Republican voting electorate right now: Contrary to recent rumors he was close to endorsing former rival Mitt Romney, Huckabee insists he's honestly not sure who he will actually vote for.

"If the election were held today, I'd struggle to choose which candidate I'd mark the ballot for," he told Yahoo News, adding that many of his friends and former supporters also remain undecided in the race.

With no clear frontrunner—especially in Iowa, where the values voters who helped Huckabee win in 2008 have failed to unite behind any one of the 2012 hopefuls—observers have wondered if Huckabee has second-guessed his decision to bypass his own bid for the nomination.  The ex-governor admits he's had occasional thoughts about what-if.

"There are moments in which I watch a debate, and I think, 'Gee, I would have said it this way,'" Huckabee said. "And there are times when I think if I were in the race, I'd probably be doing very well in Iowa and South Carolina. I think I'd probably be doing pretty good in New Hampshire. I could well be on my way to the nomination."

"But then," Huckabee added, he remembers the ugly process of campaigning: the grueling hours, the process of raising cash, the attacks from rival campaigns and anonymous special interest groups.

"I do miss Pizza Ranch," Huckabee says of the ubiquitous Iowa restaurant chain where he held most of his campaign events four years ago. "But I am not regretful of my decision."

But that's not to say Huckabee is staying out of the 2012 race.

On Saturday, he'll sponsor the first of two candidate forums ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The first, set to air on Fox News at 8pm ET, will feature Huckabee and three Republican attorneys general—Florida's Pam Bondi, Virginia's Ken Cuccinelli and Oklahoma's Scott Pruitt—questioning each of the participating Republican presidential hopefuls individually minus a studio audience.

Six candidates—Romney, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul—have confirmed they will attend. Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman have so far declined to appear.

Huckabee says he organized the forum because he has been frustrated by the "circus" atmosphere of some recent debates, which he said weren't focusing enough on pinning candidates down on serious issues.

The ex-governor insists he won't allow candidates to "grandstand" or to spend all of their time attacking other candidates. "They will have to address the question, not another candidate," he says, adding that his panel are all attorneys who won't be shy about cutting off windy presidential contenders.

Each GOP hopeful will get the same amount of time—roughly 10 minutes apiece—a rule that Huckabee, who complained about a lack of airtime during his debate appearances four years ago, is eager to enforce.

"Ron Paul got 89 seconds during the CBS debate," he said. "Whether or not you agree with Ron Paul or think he's a serious candidate, he has earned the right to be given respectful treatment as a presidential candidate."

On Dec. 14, Huckabee will host another candidate forum in Des Moines—this one held in conjunction with the premiere of a documentary he narrated about the national pro-life movement and moral questions about abortion. Candidates have been invited to address the audience before the film.

Last week, word circulated among some social conservatives in Iowa that Huckabee might endorse Romney ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The rumor was influenced in part by Huckabee's kind treatment of Romney when the former Massachusetts governor recently visited his Fox News show, and other nice comments the former Arkansas governor made about his onetime rival. Huckabee has, for instance, defended Romney against tea party criticism that he's not the right nominee and his stance on abortion.

Asked whether he's made nice with Romney after their contentious 2008 GOP primary, Huckabee insists he doesn't "bear a grudge" against the ex-governor for what he still calls Romney's efforts to "win almost by intimidation" in Iowa four years ago.

"We were opponents four years ago, so it's hard to really 'like' the person you are running against," Huckabee told Yahoo News. "I've said this to many people and I'll say it again: Whether he's my first choice is irrelevant, if he's the nominee, I'm going to vigorously support him."

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