Rogelio Solis  /  AP file
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Could he be a contender?
By contributor
updated 4/13/2005 12:58:51 PM ET 2005-04-13T16:58:51

People here remember Haley Barbour as a slightly raffish Mississippi good ol’ boy with a low center of gravity and a syrupy drawl who became chairman of the Republican Party, made a bundle as a tobacco lobbyist and then went home to – of all things – become governor: A shrewd inside player, but not someone who automatically springs to mind as presidential material.

It speaks volumes about the condition of the GOP that at least a few people around town are talking up Barbour as a Republican presidential contender in 2008 – and that at least a few of his fellow Republicans (and not just his former business partner, Ed Rogers) seem to be taking the idea somewhat seriously.

Here’s the long and short of the reasons why:

1. There is no obvious successor to George Walker Bush as El Jefe of the GOP except perhaps Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush of Florida who, by virtue of being Little Brother to the President, is too oppressively obvious and therefore problematic.

2. The party’s centrifugal forces of ideological and personality have been held together by the iron bands of Bushian will and Roveian guile. But, if for no other reason than that the president can’t run for a third term, these bands soon will break.

3. Religious conservatives, numerous and powerful in the GOP-dominated South, are the crucial voting bloc in the GOP – and the contest for their allegiance is wide open, and most likely to matter most in the Southern primaries.

4. Others in the party have taken the measure of Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader and supposedly Carl Rove’s favorite. They think Frist can be had. Yes, he is from the Bible Belt, but he is too princely in demeanor and had enough faith in (and knowledge of) science to have become one of the world’s leading thoracic surgeons. What’s more, they say, he is studious to a fault in the Kerry mold.

5. To please the right, most of the GOP's presidential wannabes will try to outdo each other in denouncing an arcane matter of Senate procedure, the Democrats use of the "filibuster" to stop Bush's judicial nominations. There is a significant minority who don't want to abolish the use of the tactic -- a favorite of conservatives in eras gone by -- but that's what they are: a minority.

Which is where Barbour comes in, or so his friends think. He’s a pro-business country club sort, stylistically – he can talk to the heathens Up North – but he’s certifiably Bible Belt in his roots and rising. “He’d be the only real Southerner in the race,” one of his buddies proudly told me the other night in what, at that moment, was the Ground Zero of early GOP presidential speculation: the FOX News tent at the Radio and Television Dinner.

The only real Southerner
Whether Barbour would be the “only real Southerner” is of course a matter of debate – but the fact that it’s a debate is what’s relevant. By my admittedly rough count there could be at least FIVE Southerners in the ’08 contest, plus several others who, while not Southern, can speak the local GOP language of “traditional” values: hetero-only marriage, gun rights, prayer in the schools and occasional, lovingly administered corporal punishment in the home. That’s the liberal media caricature. The more profound idea is this: that faith in God, family and the Bible should inform and guide American public life. 

The Southerners could include: Frist of Tennessee, Barbour of Mississippi, Bush of Florida, Sen. George Allen of Virginia and – hold onto your NASCAR gimme cap – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. The non-Southern conservatives who think they can play there – and elsewhere on the values circuit – include Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and maybe even Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

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Then there is the other side of the ledger: less obviously churchy figures such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gov. George Pataki and New York and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A central political drama of this spring – and, in a way, the opening scenes of the GOP race – revolves around the question of what to do about the filibuster. If you’ve read this far you know what I’m talking about. What no one knows for sure is which way Frist and several of the other combatants will jump.

All the certified Southerners and Northern purebreds want to junk the filibuster because, they claim, doing so will allow them to confirm (by a simple majority vote) judges who will rein in the “out of control” federal judiciary. More important, this legislative orthodoxy is what religious conservative – men such as Dr. James Dobson – believe, and that is what they are telling their millions upon millions of loyal listeners, viewers, subscribers and parishioners.

Frist is looking for a compromise, but there isn’t one – and Democratic Leader Harry Reid doesn’t really want one, because he thinks he can win the vote. If Frist wants to be taken seriously by the religious right he has to take the plunge and call for a vote.

It looks like McCain is going to jump the other way and, if he does Hagel, a fellow war hero and longtime buddy, could do the same. If both men vote against the Republican Party line, the filibuster rule might survive.

The wingers will vilify McCain; the Mainstream Media will lionize him, although how they (we) could make him anymore leonine is a very good question.

But here’s the kicker: Rove and most Republicans will privately cheer if the rule survives. It means they will have a Cause to campaign on in 2006 – and to raise money on in the meantime.

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