The stumbles of Haley Barbour

at 12:22 PM ET, 03/15/2011


Gov. Haley Barbour has stumbled in his runup to the 2012 presidential race. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Ask any Republican in the professional political class to name the party’s best strategist and they will name, almost to a person, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour’s demonstrated political skills — he has served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association among other posts — make the repeated stumbles he (and his team) have made in the run-up to what looks like a now-certain run for president in 2012 all the more baffling.

The latest problem for Barbour came on Monday when internal emails containing news clipping as well as some off-color jokes surfaced. Dan Turner, the governor’s press secretary and the author of the newsletter, resigned his post ; Barbour’s allies noted that the governor had never received the emails. (He got a printed-out version of the clips that did not include jokes.)

Still, it was the latest high-profile slip-up for Barbour.

Late last year, his comment in a Weekly Standard profile that the civil rights era in the south wasn’t “that“bad” drew a series of negative headlines and his refusal earlier this year to denounce an effort to offer a state-sponsored license plate featuring Confederate general — and Ku Klux Klan leader — Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Barbour later said he would veto such a move.)

Barbour’s early struggles have raised questions -- even among people who consider themselves friends and loyalists -- about his readiness for the 24/7 spotlight of a presidential campaign.

“Even the most seasoned people aren’t fully ready for all the setbacks and extraordinary scrutiny that mark presidential campaigns,” said Ari Fleischer, a Republican operative and press secretary for President George W. Bush. “These races are fraught with growing pains and the good candidates learn to rebound from things that go wrong.”

Fleischer added that all candidates “hope to make their worst mistakes early” when voters aren’t paying as much attention and, as a result, the slip-ups are less likely to be magnified.

And, Barbour’s allies suggest that his actions on race speak far louder than these tempests in teapots. They add that these incidents amount to inside-the-Beltway phenomenons that average people simply don’t care about.

“Like every elected official, Governor Barbour deserves to be judged on his actions -- and his record on race relations, including his efforts to promote minority business, which is exemplary,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist with long ties to Barbour. “The real question is why the media is obsessed with inventing a weakness that does not exist--- is it because they believe a governor with a track record like Barbour’s would be such a strong candidate in 2012?”

Other GOP strategists, who are not signed on with other campaigns but requested anonymity to speak candidly about Barbour’s short-of-smooth run-up to a presidential bid, were less charitable about the possible impact of this trio of mistakes -- suggesting that the slip-ups are evidence of broader problems that he must solve to be a serious force in the primary fight.

The main cause for concern, according to these sources, is that Barbour (and his political world) may not be made for the new reality of presidential politics in the age of Twitter, flip cams and Facebook.

“Haley world puts a premium on funny stories and good times,” said one high level Republican consultant. “And he is the king of both. Nothing good can come from that in a 24-hour news world.”

There are also those within the party who suggest that Barbour and his team of advisers don’t fully understand that what worked for him in Mississippi might not be transferable to a presidential race. “His very southern group of advisors may be too insular to understand the diversity of the country and how that type of stuff plays in places like Iowa and New Hampshire,” said one.

(Of course, even though these operatives are currently unaligned in the presidential race, they might not always be so it’s worth taking their not-for-attribution critiques of the governor with a grain of salt.)

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that Barbour has not had the ideal roll-out of a presidential candidacy. And, even if you accept the analysis of the Barbour team that these stories haven’t penetrated beyond the confines of the nation’s capitol, that doesn’t mean they are without impact.

As we have written before, a presidential nomination fight is like an iceberg — most of it goes on below the surface of voters’ consciousness. By the time voters’ start paying attention, the narratives for each candidate/campaign are often set. (Those narratives can, obviously change if a candidate really catches on with voters in an early state ala former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008.)

Right now, Barbour’s narrative is not a good one. It’s focused entirely too much on race for a governor from the South and with a strong accent, and not enough on Barbour’s accomplishments in the state since being elected in 2003.

The best thing going for Barbour is that he still has months before a single vote is cast, meaning that he can bend the story of his campaign in a more favorable arc. And, Barbour is still a very gifted communicator whose likely to do well in the kick-the-tires-portion of the race — from debates to stump speeches.

Still, the early returns suggest that Barbour has to tighten up his own performance and that of his operation or run the risk of losing control of his message before voters even start paying real attention to the 2012 race.

 
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