By Mark Egan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Reality TV star and property mogul Donald Trump said on Tuesday to protect his possible run for the presidency as an independent he would not moderate a planned debate among Republican hopefuls.
All but two candidates had declined to participate in Trump's December 27 forum in Iowa.
Some Republicans worried the showboating Trump, star of NBC's "The Apprentice" program where he is known for his catch phrase "You're fired," could make the event all about him.
As a result only former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has surged to the front of the Republican field in recent weeks, and former Senator Rick Santorum were planning to attend.
"I am not willing to give up my right to run as an Independent candidate," Trump said in a statement. "Therefore, so that there is no conflict of interest within the Republican Party, I have decided not to be the moderator of the Newsmax debate."
The debate was to be sponsored by the Newsmax website and broadcast on the Ion cable television network. It was to come at a time when Americans are busy with holidays but less than a week before the key January 3 caucus in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire on January 10.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Texas Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Representatives Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann had said they would not attend the debate.
"I would like to thank Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for having the courage, conviction, and confidence to immediately accept being a part of the Newsmax debate," Trump said.
"I believe this would not only have been the most watched debate, but also the most substantive and interesting debate!"
Several of the Republican candidates have met with Trump in hopes of winning his support but many party members mused aloud that a debate hosted by Trump would not reflect well on the party. A campaign spokesman for Paul said that Trump moderating a debate would result in "an unwanted circus-like atmosphere."
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for Republican President George W. Bush, said on Twitter that Trump moderating a debate was absurd.
Earlier this year Trump flirted with a run for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination and was derided for pushing a discredited charge that President Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States.
Although the resulting publicity yielded significant support for Trump in some polls, he never mounted an actual campaign and critics suggested it was all self-promotion.
Trump eventually decided not to pursue the Republican nomination but recently has said he still might run as an independent.
(Reporting by Mark Egan, editing by Jackie Frank)