Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee will not run for president in 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

“All the factors say go,” Huckabee said during a live, final segment of his eponymous Fox News Channel show Saturday night. “But my heart says no.”

Huckabee noted that while all of the “external” factors pointed toward him running, he only found an “inexplicable inner peace” when he decided not to enter the race.

The announcement came at the conclusion of a show that had a decidedly surreal feel. Huckabee’s no-go decision was preceded by an appearance by Mario Lopez — of “Saved by the Bell” fame — as well as musician Ted Nugent. Just prior to announcing he would not run, Huckabee played bass alongside Nugent on “Cat Scratch Fever”.

In the immediate wake of Huckabee’s decision, businessman Donald Trump, himself a potential 2012 candidates, appeared in a pre-taped message to congratulate the former Arkansas governor.

Anticipation for the announcement had been building since early Friday when Huckabee touted a “very important announcement”to be made Saturday night. He spoke in only the vaguest terms about what he say and even his closest political allies did not know what his decision would be.

Huckabee’s decision not to run almost certainly guarantees a more wide-open contest as his vote share, which, in most polling was between 25 and 30 percent, is now up for grabs.

A Huckabee-less field also makes the Iowa caucuses far more competitive as the Arkansas Republican would have been a clear favorite in the state following his surprise victory there in 2008. That’s good news for people like Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — all of whom are expected to make a major push in the Hawkeye State.

The GOP race is now also without a well known social conservative candidate — a void that will be even more pronounced if former Alaska governor Sarah Palin decides against the race. (Palin has set no timetable to make a decision.)

With social conservative voters playing prominent roles in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary — two of the first four nominating contests — the candidates who do run will position themselves to court this influential vote.

Huckabee kept the political world waiting for word on his future for the better part of the last two years.

A break-out star in the 2008 race thanks to his sense of humor and social conservative bona fides, polling both nationally and in Iowa — a critical early-voting state — suggested that Huckabee retained considerable good will and would be a formidable force if he decided to run again.

But, he has long been publicly ambivalent about a return run for president. “I’m not one who thinks the future of the world is depending on whether I run for president,” Huckabee told the Post’s Karen Tumulty in a February sitdown in New York City.

In that same interview, Huckabee said he disliked many aspects of running for president, including the fundraising and the marathon of debates. He also said he believed that President Obama would be harder to beat than many Republicans believed.

Huckabee’s ambivalence was also driven by the success he had found in the private sector since the 2008 race.

Once a little-known Arkansas governor — his claim to fame was that he and former President Bill Clinton hailed from the same hometown — Huckabee has become a conservative celebrity.

He has a syndicated radio show, an hour-long show on Fox News Channel every Saturday and is a hot commodity on the speaking circuit. Huckabee is scheduled to spend a week on a Christian-themed cruise through Alaska at the beginning of next month and recently started an education company.

In recent months, Huckabee had huddled with potential major donors — his 2008 campaign was hamstrung by a lack of fundraising — and some allies had begun to sketch out the basics of what a 2012 bid might look like.

Then, roughly three weeks ago, according to one insider, Huckabee began to back away from the race — expressing concerns about the slings and arrows he would take from his 2012 rivals.

“He started complaining about getting beaten up,” said Ed Rollins, who managed Huckabee’s 2008 campaign. “He didn’t like that.”

Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.