By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, unable to break out of a crowded Republican field, said on Monday he will not run for U.S. president in 2012 and suggested he did not have the "fire in the belly" for a race.
Barbour, 63, polled only 2 percent in a Gallup poll last week that gave a first look at Republican preferences for 2012, way behind other rivals. Making matters worse, he had back surgery two weeks ago.
Barbour had spent weeks visiting the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, leading many Republicans to believe he was running for the nomination to face off against President Barack Obama next year.
"I will not be a candidate for president next year. This has been a difficult, personal decision, and I am very grateful to my family for their total support of my going forward, had that been what I decided," he said in a statement.
He suggested he did not have a complete commitment for a campaign.
"A candidate for president today is embracing a 10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else. His (or her) supporters expect and deserve no less than absolute fire in the belly from their candidate. I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required," he said.
It would have been an uphill battle for Barbour, even in a Republican field that is considered lackluster. Obama leads most opinion polls against potential Republican rivals.
Democrats were eager to jump on his past as a powerful Washington lobbyist and raise questions about his commitment to civil rights in Mississippi. And some Republicans thought he made a mistake for questioning why the United States was still in Afghanistan.
Republican strategist Scott Reed said Barbour's decision may end up helping the presumptive front-runner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
"Haley would have been positioned to become the conservative alternative to Romney and made it a race. It's a good day for Romney headquarters," Reed said.
Barbour's move could also help Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in his deciding whether he will seek the 2012 nomination. Barbour and Daniels are close friends and were not keen on competing against each other.
"This is one of those hurdles that is now being removed for Daniels," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
Barbour leaves Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as the only big-name Republicans yet to form presidential exploratory committees, which means they are preparing campaigns.
In recent weeks, other potential candidates, such as real estate tycoon Donald Trump, have been gaining far more attention than Barbour.
James Smith, history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, called Barbour a political realist and probably decided "that the odds were not good for him getting the nomination."
"It seems like Donald Trump may be sucking the oxygen out of these second and third tier candidates (such as Barbour) and you have to factor that the man just had back surgery," said Smith.
Iowa State Senator Bill Dix, a Republican, suggested the lack of an all-consuming passion is the key.
"Taking on the challenge of getting a presidential campaign up and running would be a big task and if you recognize you don't have the fire in the belly for it, he made the right choice," Dix said.
Pawlenty praised Barbour in a statement.
"When Republicans defeat Barack Obama next year, it will be thanks to the solid party foundation Haley helped build," he said.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg in Atlanta and Kay Henderson in Des Moines, Editing by Mary Milliken and Deborah Charles)