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WASHINGTON — Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi had hired a campaign manager, lined up influential Republican activists in early-voting states and secured commitments from donors across the country, but he surprised them all Monday by announcing that he was abandoning his effort to join the Republican presidential race.

In a telephone call to supporters, followed by a brief statement, Barbour said he lacked the “absolute fire in the belly” that a candidacy would require. He apologized for flirting with a presidential bid over the past six months and then backing away, but said he had concluded that he was not ready to dedicate himself to the “all-consuming effort” a campaign would require.

“I cannot offer that with certainty,” he said, “and total certainty is required.”

The decision by Barbour, 63, provided the biggest shake-up yet of the 2012 presidential race. His departure adds another layer of uncertainty to the wide-open fight for the party’s nomination and set off a scramble among other candidates seeking to sign up his donors and supporters.

Throughout the spring, Barbour has been traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, testing his support among Republicans who cast the first votes. He recruited a team of operatives in those states, along with national campaign strategists, and rivals expected him to join the first Republican debate next week in South Carolina.

But his candidacy faced many challenges. As a lobbyist, for example, he represented tobacco companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and several foreign governments. He sought to sell the experience as an advantage, telling audiences, “I saw the sausage factory up close,” but his aides braced for intense scrutiny.

Barbour founded the Washington lobbying firm now known as BGR in 1991 with Ed Rogers, a close friend and fellow Mississippian who had worked with him in the Reagan White House. The next year, Lanny Griffith, who worked in the administration of the first President Bush and also hailed from Mississippi, joined them. They formed the foundation of a powerhouse firm with close ties to the Republican establishment.

Barbour left the firm in 2004 when he became governor of Mississippi, but associates say he is a frequent visitor to the office when he is in Washington. Since his formal departure, reports have shown that he has continued to draw hundreds of thousands of dollars from a blind trust that held stock in the firm’s parent company.