SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Say you were a political party on the upswing, looking for the ideal candidate to defeat a president who had been elected on hope, change and the chance to make history.
Probably not high on your list would be: 1) a former lobbyist who made millions carrying water for tobacco companies, the oil industry and foreign governments; 2) the governor of a state ranked at or near the bottom in pretty much every measure of its residents’ well-being; and 3) a beefy southerner who kept a confederate flag autographed by Jefferson Davis in his office and who has a Delta drawl as thick as Karo syrup.
Yet standing here in a pub called Sweet Fanny’s, draft beer in hand, were all three in one person.
“I’m Haley. I’m here because I’m seriously thinking of running for president,” he said to a couple of dozen GOP activists in this state whose first-in-the-nation caucuses are less than a year away. “If you’re not committed, I hope you’ll keep your powder dry and let me have a chance, if I decide to run in April, to compete for your support.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour can seem like a man from another time — out of step not only with the age of Barack Obama, but also with the era of the tea party movement. He is an insider’s insider — a backroom dealer, a trader of favors, a conservator of the establishment — at a moment when the Republican Party is in the grip of an insurgency against all three.
But however abundant Barbour’s liabilities are, he would enter the 2012 race as a credible contender, even a formidable one, in a GOP field that is the most wide open and unsettled it has been in half a century.
The former Republican National Committee chairman — and, yes, people call him Haley, like a one-name rock star — would start with a political network unmatched by any other potential GOP candidate, with the possible exception of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). Although Barbour barely registers in the polls, even among Republicans, it is hard to think of any other figure who could tap a deeper reservoir of affection and gratitude among the people who write the checks and run the party machinery.
Barbour’s admirers include many potential 2012 rivals, some of whom go back decades with him. “Probably one of the greatest political minds that is alive today,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is mulling over a second bid for the nomination.
And if there is anything in which Barbour has an unshakable faith, it is his power to bring around just about anyone.
Americans, he said confidently in an interview aboard his chartered jet, “have given hope a chance. They want to give results a chance.”
One of the clearest indications of his seriousness about running is that Barbour, famously fond of fine dining and Maker’s Mark, said he has dropped 20 pounds.
Not that he’s entirely happy with his new regimen. “How do you like this diet food?” he asked as he opened a plastic clamshell of grilled chicken salad. To his dismay, a vigilant aide had given him one with low-fat vinaigrette on the side — which he promptly offered to trade for someone else’s Caesar dressing.
Barbour was making his second swing through Iowa since a midterm election in which he could claim no small share of the credit for the Republicans’ success. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour took up the slack as the dysfunctional Republican National Committee imploded, reached into his golden Rolodex and raised a record $115 million.
The result: six more GOP governors than before, and a more forbidding landscape for President Obama in 2012, given that Republicans have replaced eight swing-state Democrats. Not incidentally, the exercise burnished Barbour’s standing within the party.
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.”
For all of Barbour’s political acumen, however, his emerging presidential operation has shown itself to be surprisingly accident-prone.
On the very day he was giving that high-profile economic address in Chicago, his press secretary, Dan Turner, was forced to resign after Politico revealed that he had been tucking tasteless jokes — including one about the earthquake in Japan — into the daily e-mail of news clippings that he sent out to Barbour allies and staff members. There is no evidence that the governor, who reads the clips on paper, ever saw the e-mails.
And Barbour, 63, keeps finding himself on the defensive about that most sensitive of all subjects for a white southern politician of a certain age: race.
In his recollection of a Mayberry-like childhood, he told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine last year that he didn’t remember the era before integration as being “that bad.” He praised his town’s chapter of the segregationist Citizens’ Councils, saying they had kept the Ku Klux Klan at bay.
Amid the ensuing furor, Barbour issued a statement saying that those days had, in fact, been “a difficult and painful era for Mississippi” and that the councils had been “totally indefensible, as is segregation.”
Race — and presumptions about how he feels about it — rattle the normally unflappable Barbour as few other things do.
“The only people who ever asked me about it are reporters,” he said, bristling when asked about it yet again in the interview.
But he and his team know that race is one issue he can’t dodge, and that is why Barbour — just as Obama did during his presidential campaign — is considering giving a major speech on the subject. The likely venue: a 50th anniversary reunion of the Freedom Riders, set for late May in Jackson.
Will voters be willing to see the Mississippi governor in a different light?
“Americans want a president who can get things done and solve the problems that are making their lives less good than they could be,” he said. “I’m a lawyer, a politician and a lobbyist. That’s a trifecta. But I think the voters are interested in other things.”