Barbour's Efforts to Revive GOP May Also Boost Himself

Haley Barbour (R-Miss.), left, greets Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) at a governors meeting in Biloxi, Miss.
Haley Barbour (R-Miss.), left, greets Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) at a governors meeting in Biloxi, Miss. (By Rogelio V. Solis -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

BILOXI, Miss., July 18 -- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was Republican National Committee chairman the last time his party was at such a low, after the election of 1992. Two years later, Republicans captured control of Congress, and although Newt Gingrich, who became the new House speaker, got much of the credit, party insiders say Barbour played a major role.

Sixteen years later, Republicans are looking to Barbour to help lead them back once more. It is perhaps ironic that, at a time of generational change in politics, an elder statesman such as Barbour, 61, is once again poised to play a pivotal role for his party, this time in the elections of 2009 and 2010. And although he says a presidential candidacy in 2012 is not likely, Barbour has refused to shut the door on speculation that he is interested.

This weekend, he is playing host to a meeting of the National Governors Association, a gathering of bipartisanship and bonhomie that is allowing him to show off how the Mississippi Gulf Coast has recovered under his leadership since Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Once the meeting ends, he will turn back to partisan politics in his new assignment as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

He is prospering as other GOP luminaries, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have stumbled.

He took over the chairmanship when Sanford resigned the post after admitting to an extramarital affair. Barbour has refrained from commenting on Sanford's problems and, in an interview on the eve of the NGA meeting, ducked the question of whether Palin's decision to resign is a responsible action by an incumbent governor.

"I am not smart enough to know whether this helps her or hurts her for 2012, or whether that's what it was focused on. I'm just ignorant of it." He paused and laughed, saying: "That's the best you're getting."

Over the next two years, Barbour will oversee the party's efforts in more than three dozen gubernatorial races, beginning this fall with attempts to capture Democratic-held governorships in Virginia and New Jersey. The 2009 and 2010 races will provide a clear indicator of whether the GOP is coming back.

Barbour knows all the reasons for the party's plight, but he argues that Republicans are not as bad off as the worst assessments suggest. Inside the party, his analysis and prescriptions are likely to be widely followed.

He worries that some Republicans see ideological purity as the route back, and argues that, if anything, the GOP must become more inclusive, not less.

"When you lose, there are some people who say, 'Well, now's the time to get pure,' " he said. "Well, purity in politics is about losing. Politics is about addition and multiplication; purity is about subtraction and division. . . . You have to remember that now is the time to have the most open of doors."

Barbour brings a number of potential liabilities to any role as the face of the party. His Southern drawl reinforces the image of a party that has become, in the estimation of many analysts, too Southern-based. He is hardly a fresh face for a repackaged GOP, having been in the thick of national politics for nearly three decades, including a stint as Ronald Reagan's White House political director. He was also one of Washington's most prominent and successful lobbyists, the very kind of people Barack Obama railed against last year.

But his assets make him especially attractive to fellow Republicans. He is an aggressive and effective partisan advocate who knows how to mix humor with political attack. He has a vast network and is respected by many Democratic adversaries. He is as comfortable talking about the details of the House energy bill as he is about the metrics of an effective political campaign.

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