It also raised eyebrows at home. Last year, the governor — barred by term limits from running for a third term — spent at least 175 days outside Mississippi, according to a Jackson Clarion-Ledger analysis of state records. It noted that his travels and the attendant security cost the state more than $300,000.
What makes some Republicans see presidential timber in the self-described “fat redneck” from Yazoo City, however, is not his political genius. It is his record as a governor who beat his state’s trial lawyers on tort reform, who lured industry, who balanced budgets. And more than anything else, it is the way Barbour took charge of resurrecting a state whose coastline was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina during his second year in office.
“He did a fantastic job during the crisis — and that’s what we’re in, a crisis,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Ray Hoffmann, who has not committed his 2012 support to any possible candidate but held a dinner for Barbour at his Italian restaurant in Sioux City.
Perhaps because his Republican credentials are so unimpeachable, Barbour feels comfortable straying from party dogma in some areas. He is increasingly skeptical of the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan, saying it is time to reconsider whether 100,000 troops are really necessary to hunt down a handful of al-Qaeda forces. And he says the party must cut defense spending.
What Barbour talks about most — and where he thinks his party needs to keep its focus — is on the economy and job creation. Lamenting that he has seen too much “root-canal Republicanism” in his time, the governor said Republicans must be clearer that spending cuts are a means to an end — economic growth — and not an end in and of themselves.
His two terms in Jackson, at least in Barbour’s telling, transformed him from a Beltway power player into a born-again outsider.
“I am very proud of the work I did. I understood Congress and the administration. I saw the sausage factory up close,” he said in an economic address last week at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “But when I took the oath of office as governor, I got a new perspective on government and how it affects real people.”
Although he concedes that Mississippi is hardly a paradise, Barbour points to the progress it has made and boasts about the jobs it has taken from other states.
“When I was a young lawyer, businesses came to Mississippi looking for strong backs and low wages,” he said in the interview. “Now they come looking for strong minds, and they’re willing to pay for it.”