The Case for Haley Barbour in the 2012 Presidential Race

Could Mississippi’s good-old-boy governor carry Republicans to the White House?

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Cameron Lynch is a former aide to three U.S. senators and president of the Lynch Group--a Republican government affairs and political consulting firm. He is not currently affiliated with any individual contemplating a run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. 

Spend a few minutes with GOP politicos these days and the dialogue inevitably shifts to the subject of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. The great majority of these conversations follow a predictable script: "Romney is the front-runner, but can he maintain momentum? Pawlenty is a really nice guy, but is he presidential timber? What the hell is Sarah Palin going to do?"

The analogous nature of these discussions made a recent dinner with a veteran GOP operative all the more interesting. When we turned to the inevitable topic, he looked me straight in the eye and unwaveringly proclaimed: "Haley is my candidate."

Haley Barbour, the second-term governor of Mississippi, may, at first blush, seem like the last man the GOP should choose to take on Barack Obama in 2012. Barbour is a (very) southern, white, former tobacco lobbyist and is considered by many to be the consummate Washington insider. As RNC chairman in 1994, Barbour executed the historic Republican takeover of Congress. Many Republican icons, from Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush, partially credit their political success to Barbour's efforts as party head. He is also the founder of one of the most influential Republican lobbying firms on K Street. The firm that still brandishes his name on its letterhead.

Barbour's current chairmanship of the Republican Governors' Association--a post he assumed following Mark Sanford's awkward exit from the organization's leadership--has garnered him objective praise. A prolific money man, Barbour broke every fundraising record and oversaw victories in two gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia--states both considered toss-ups when the cycle began. Under his tutelage, prospects for Republican governors appear even better in 2010.

Yet simply to dismiss Barbour as a shrewd campaign tactician cheapens his substantive contributions to Mississippi as the state's chief executive. Barbour receives widespread credit for his crisis management skills during the disastrous hurricanes that traumatized his state in 2005. I spoke with one Magnolia State native who deadpanned: "Mississippi got hit worse than Louisiana. The difference was that Mississippi had Haley." Throughout his tenure in Jackson, Barbour has established an impressive record, even with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

Barbour is most comfortable as the backslapping, bourbon sipping, good old boy, and his critics quickly pan him as just that. Engage him in a policy firefight, however, and you'll wish you hadn't. Barbour converses fluently about intricacies of Democratic healthcare reform, and the ramifications of proposed climate change legislation. Barbour works a room with the swagger of a riverboat gambler, but beneath that easy exterior whirls a policy mind that even think-tank wonks can envy.

At a time when many pundits insist that Tea Partiers, libertarians and social conservatives are splintering the GOP, Barbour's political strength is his broad appeal to Republicans of all stripes. Social conservatives admire his pro-life, pro-family values message. Fiscal conservatives revel in his swashbuckling anti-Washington rants. Good-government fans value his executive experience as GOP chairman, businessman, and governor. Country club Republicans like him because, frankly, at heart, he's one of them. All of these attributes, however, do not a successful presidential candidate make.

Barbour has some considerable obstacles to overcome if he is to challenge Romney, Pawlenty, and others. He must combat his "Beltway Barbour" moniker at a time when American voters couldn't be more frustrated with Washington or displeased with their political parties. President Obama's uproar over registered lobbyist participation in the 2008 presidential election (a tactic he will undoubtedly resurrect in the 2012 race) certainly wouldn't favor a Barbour candidacy.