Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has been such a force in national politics for so long that it's a shock to realize most of the country doesn't know him. As he makes preparations to run for president, national polls of the Republican field show he'd pull only 1 to 2 percent of the primary vote. But if the past is prologue, that won't last long.
Barbour, 63, is dismissed by some as a Southern candidate who would nail down the only region the GOP already has nailed down. The usually surefooted politician did misstep recently with comments that suggested he was oblivious, or at least insensitive, to the civil rights struggles and tragedies of his state and hometown of Yazoo City.
The negative publicity, along with his imperceptible showings in polls, underscore the distance Barbour has to travel to become a viable national candidate. He's also handicapped as a sitting governor; he says he won't make a final decision on whether to run until his legislature adjourns in April.
Yet it would be a mistake for anyone to underestimate Barbour. He has been a consistent advocate for a big-tent GOP — a party "big enough for all our people to feel comfortable" in it — and has campaigned for diverse candidates all over the country. At the same time he's a social and fiscal conservative with a record of balancing budgets without raising taxes. Beyond that, he has strategic smarts and personal charm, and he is not waiting until April to apply them to the task at hand.
"He is actively preparing to run and doing the things that prospective candidates do. He is making key political calls and finance calls, certainly planning some strategic trips" to important primary and caucus states, a close adviser to Barbour told me. He's been to South Carolina and Florida and "we're looking at the potential of going to Iowa and New Hampshire as soon as he can work it into his schedule" in the coming weeks, the adviser said, adding that a trip to Nevada is also possible.
The Iowa GOP is holding a straw poll in August and kicks off the season with caucuses in about a year. Both require painstaking organizing — the kind Barbour has overseen for decades as a political operative, party leader and statewide candidate. Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is sponsoring candidate events throughout the next year, said Barbour has as good a shot at winning the state as anyone. "There's no frontrunner," he said. "It's just a wide open field."
Barbour doesn't have the name recognition of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin or 2008 hopefuls like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. But to many on his early rounds, this veteran of the Reagan White House needs no introduction. As chairman of the Republican National Committee, Barbour helped his party win control of the House in 1994 — the first GOP majority in 40 years. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association last year, he pursued record fundraising and his own get-out-the-vote drives in key states — his way of offsetting weakness at the RNC under Michael Steele.
Chip Felkel, a Republican consultant who has been setting up meetings for Barbour in South Carolina, said he's known him for 20 years — since Felkel was a field staffer for the RNC and Barbour was a committeeman from Mississippi. He said it won't take long for people to get to know and like Barbour. "Once he has an opportunity to come into the state, I think people will see he's authentic and he's got credentials," Felkel said.
Part of the authenticity is Barbour's appearance. Weathered and heavy-set, he will never look like the groom on the wedding cake — or, as Romney joked about himself last week on CBS's Late Show With David Letterman, "the guy in the photo that comes with your picture frame." Romney's perfect looks are, in fact, a bit burdensome.
The contrast with Romney — viewed by many as the leading contender for the GOP nomination at the moment — goes beyond image. Romney was criticized in 2008 for having shifted his positions on hot-button issues like abortion. Barbour doesn't have that problem. "He is an authentic leader. He is somebody who tells you what he thinks. He doesn't tend to sugarcoat things," said the Barbour adviser. "That's a contrast to some who are likely going to be in this race."
Barbour is one of the few likely contenders who are competitive with Romney on CEO-type qualities. Romney is credited with turning around the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Barbour, unlike political figures in neighboring Louisiana, emerged from the crucible of Hurricane Katrina as a stronger leader.
Ellen Ratner, the liberal owner of a talk-radio network as well as a Fox News contributor, last year called Barbour one of the heroes of Katrina. She said it would be an understatement to say her politics were different from his, but "he ran the storm response like FDR ran the recovery from the Great Depression." His wife Marsha went out every day to see who needed what and he in turn made sure they got it, Ratner wrote. "He has moved around the Gulf Coast as if he was just the good neighbor from across the street," she added. "I've been around politicians for 19 years as a reporter and Barbour is a master of being totally present to his citizens. It is a rare gift."
Can he be totally present to citizens of other states? One New Hampshire supporter of another candidate calls Barbour a great governor, very smart, who "knows how to charm the room." But he said that as a sitting governor, it will be hard for Barbour to invest the time needed to become familiar to New Hampshire voters.
This adviser also expressed surprise at Barbour's civil rights remarks to the Weekly Standard magazine (Barbour praised the anti-integration Citizens Council for keeping the Ku Klux Klan out of Yazoo City and said he didn't much remember a speech he went to by Martin Luther King). Proximity to national campaigns is no substitute for running, the adviser said. "When you start doing it for the very first time, it is so much harder than you think it is. Any margin of error you've got disappears."
Barbour often jokes that his motto is "ask forgiveness, not permission." Sometimes he doesn't even ask for forgiveness. He proudly advertises a resume that includes what he variously describes as the "trifecta" or the "big three" of lawyer, lobbyist and politician. He even sometimes adds that in addition to years as a tobacco lobbyist, he narrowly missed lobbying for the gun industry. And if that isn't enfant terrible enough for you, how about his joke that if he loses 40 pounds, we'll know he either has cancer or he's running for president?
I asked the Barbour adviser how he looks these days. "He has lost some weight," the adviser said. "He hasn't lost 40 pounds. He might be halfway there. So read into that what you will."
Barbour is in Israel this week on a trip sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. He'll be back midweek in plenty of time to speak Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, where the DC journalism establishment will be sure to note his trimness. My take? It's very hard to lose 20 pounds and you wouldn't do it without a strong motivation. Like determination to win a presidential nomination.