Mike Huckabee may be running out of time to make a decision on running for president.
It's not that the former Arkansas governor feels any political imperative to speed up his timetable. But his Fox News bosses would like him either to jump into the White House race soon or announce that he's taking a pass.
In March, Fox suspended two contributors, Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum, for taking concrete steps toward a presidential bid. No action was taken on two others, Huckabee and Sarah Palin, but Huckabee's status may be coming to a head.
Bill Shine, the network's executive vice president for programming, told The Daily Beast that "like we did with Gingrich and Santorum, we are continuing to monitor the situation and will take action if and when we think it is necessary." Fox has planned a meeting with Huckabee in the near future to discuss the matter, said Shine.
Huckabee said the notion that Fox is pressuring him over the situation is "total nonsense. Your source is full of it," he told me by email. "No pressure at all. Fox has been very understanding and they know and I know that if I take steps to be a candidate (ask for money, support, or set up a committee), then I will step aside. That's been understood from the beginning."
True, but some executives are concerned about Huckabee continuing to host a weekend show while stoking interest in a possible second presidential campaign. "It's getting uncomfortable," said a Fox insider.
One event that has raised the discomfort level at Fox is Huckabee's decision to accept a prime speaking slot at a National Rifle Association convention in Pittsburgh this weekend. The NRA is a major force in Republican politics.
Huckabee met quietly with Donald Trump this month and said he came away convinced the developer would jump in the race. Politico described the meeting as part of a listening tour for Huckabee to sound out possible donors.
“Fox has been very understanding and they know and I know that if I take steps to be a candidate... I will step aside,” said Huckabee.
It's not Huckabee's fault that political speculation swirls around him, especially with him in first place in some GOP polls and tied with Trump for the top spot in others. But he has done nothing to discourage the chatter, which was stoked by a lengthy tour for his latest book.
Some Fox executives question whether the network should continue paying Huckabee $500,000 a year during this period, when the television exposure clearly helps a potential run. Huckabee often touts his website on the Saturday night show, which launched in 2009 and draws between 900,000 and 1 million viewers.
Huckabee, who is building a house in Florida, has acknowledged that his television salary is a factor in waiting until the summer to decide his political future. "If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income," he said recently, which is why it makes sense for him to delay a decision.
Fox also finds itself in a dilemma as the sponsor of what would be the first GOP presidential debate, scheduled for May 5 in Greenville, South Carolina. There are, as of now, all of two candidates who meet the criteria, which includes forming an exploratory committee and averaging at least 1 percent in five national polls. They are Tim Pawlenty and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, which would not exactly make for smashing ratings.
Mitt Romney hasn't committed. Haley Barbour just dropped out. The lack of declared candidates is making the Fox face-off look awfully premature. Since the network hasn't yet signed a contract with the South Carolina Republican Party, it's possible the event will have to be delayed, as was an NBC/Politico debate at the Reagan Library that was recently pushed back to September from May.
While Fox had set the eligibility deadline for April 29, the network has quietly switched it to May 3, just two days before the debate. The reason, insiders say, is to allow Gingrich more time to decide whether he's going to commit to a presidential campaign—and, if the answer is yes, be included in the event.
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.