Fox News Benches Two Candidates

The network has suspended presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—while potential rivals Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee get to continue enjoying an unmatched media platform and a fat paycheck. Howard Kurtz reports on its legal reasoning.

03.02.11 5:46 PM ET

This just in: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee aren't running for president.

At least not now.

Not according to Fox News, anyway.

The network excluded the two contributors from a suspension it carried out Wednesday against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, on grounds that Palin and Huckabee haven't taken any overt steps toward a White House run.

The former Alaska governor "hasn't done anything herself to show us she has any intention of running right now," says Dianne Brandi, Fox's executive vice president for legal affairs.

What about the former Arkansas governor, who has given a whole slew of interviews over the past week about how he is grappling with whether to mount a second presidential campaign? "Huckabee is selling books now," Brandi says.

The decision underscores the crucial role that Fox plays in the GOP presidential maneuvering by paying no fewer than four possible contenders—and giving them a huge megaphone to reach primary voters. The longer prospective candidates stay in the Fox camp, the longer they can utilize the platform of the country's top-rated cable news channel, and pad their bank accounts to boot.

"If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income," Huckabee said last week, which is why it makes sense for him to delay a decision until summer.

But Fox has also been put in an awkward situation, in which it's covering the likes of Palin and Gingrich in the context of 2012, even as they're part of the corporate family—and to some extent shielding them, since the contributors are barred from appearing on other networks without permission.

So why did Fox sideline Gingrich and Santorum now?

"The people in Newt's camp told us he was going to announce an exploratory committee," Brandi says. "Once I got that information, we had to send a letter. Once you've formed an exploratory committee, you obviously can't be on our payroll as a contributor."

On Tuesday night Brandi sent Gingrich a letter, an excerpt of which was obtained by The Daily Beast:

The longer candidates stay in the Fox camp, the longer they can utilize the platform of the country's top-rated cable news channel—and pad their bank accounts to boot.

"This confirms that effective tomorrow, March 2, 2011, Fox News will suspend your Contributor Agreement for the following reasons. Fox News has received information that an exploratory committee has been formed in connection with your potential candidacy for public office and may be announced publicly as soon as tomorrow. If this information is incorrect, please confirm in writing that you have not authorized the creation of an exploratory committee."

Media reports had said Gingrich would announce the committee Thursday, but his camp took the unusual step of putting out a release saying it would not happen on that day. But there is little question that Gingrich plans to take that step soon.

In Santorum's case, the former Pennsylvania senator has made clear, in part through more than 20 trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, that he's running. But Brandi says an accumulation of details, such as Santorum saying he plans to participate in presidential debates and is moving toward an exploratory committee, tipped the balance for her.

Of course, this is something of a kabuki dance. Potential presidential candidates are milking the Fox exposure for all it's worth while delaying a legal step—an exploratory committee—that would force them off the air. Huckabee and Palin may not be forming such vehicles, but they have political action committees that hire staff who help keep them in the news.

Fox isn't the first network to play along. CNN provided a bully pulpit for Pat Buchanan in the 1990s before and after his presidential campaigns, taking him off the air only when he, yes, took a legal step toward running.

When Fox's Sean Hannity asked Palin about her 2012 plans on Feb. 9, she said: "I will make the decision as things fall into place or don't fall into place for me and for my family as we move forward with the internal deliberations that we are engaged in, and deciding whether to run for this office or not. So, I'm not going to put myself in a box to give a timeline." That certainly sounds like someone who's actively considering a White House campaign.

Now, in addition to the political calendar, we have the Fox calendar. The network has given Gingrich and Santorum 60 days to get in or out. If they tell the network they're running, their contracts are terminated. If they decide to pull out, they will be back on the payroll, offering their views from the safety of a television studio and maybe contemplating another attempt in 2016.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.