In the Delta, Everyone’s Buzzing About Barbour

by Stuart Rothenberg June 10, 2010 · 8:59 AM EDT

GREENVILLE, Miss. — Politically interested folks in the Mississippi Delta spent the last few days of May wondering about whether Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln will survive today’s Democratic runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and whether Democratic Rep. Travis Childers of Mississippi’s 1st district can win in a Republican wave in November.

With Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, Lincoln and Childers are regarded by many in this region (even Republicans) as crucial advocates for Southern agriculture.

But more than anything else, political junkies throughout the Magnolia State seemed intrigued by the future of their own governor, Republican Haley Barbour.

“What’s Haley going to do?” they ask at the drop of a political hat, clearly ready to chip in with their own comments about the governor’s political future.

Barbour, first elected in 2003 and re-elected in 2007, is finishing his second term. Since he is precluded from running again, political junkies in the state have already started to handicap next year’s election to replace him.

Not that anyone thinks that the next occupant of the state’s top office can actually replace Barbour, who has a larger-than-life reputation in Mississippi and among some people in the nation’s capital.

At a time when many governors have seen their poll numbers and reputations tumble, the 62-year-old chief executive is still viewed by Mississippi political observers as hugely successful.

So it isn’t surprising that movers and shakers in the Mississippi Delta, where politics has replaced cotton as king, are wondering what is in store for their governor when his term ends next year.

Barbour, who currently chairs the Republican Governors Association, chaired the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, putting him at his party’s helm during the 1994 midterm elections, when the GOP swept control of the House and Senate.

After the RNC, Barbour opened up an influential lobbying firm in the nation’s capital, and Barbour continues to have a legion of political allies in Washington, D.C., and nationally ready to do battle for him.

Barbour considered a presidential run in 2008 but wasn’t all that serious about it. This time, insiders say, he is taking a long look at 2012. Admirers of the governor — and there are many — note that he has a long list of assets in a presidential race.

Barbour has been active in his party for so long that every Republican activist seems to know him and like him. He is well-liked by state and local GOP party leaders, and his popularity is unmatched, according to one veteran Republican insider, as a fundraiser, particularly among high-dollar GOP contributors. His current role at the RGA only increases his contacts.

As a debater, Barbour certainly can hold his own against any Republican now mentioned for 2012, and some think his combination of substance and style would allow him to stand out from the rest of the field. Anyone who knows the governor is aware that he seems equally at home talking with folks at the local diner and with corporate CEOs in a boardroom or at a gala.

And of course, Barbour earned good marks for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, adding to his reputation for competence and his ability to get things done.

Barbour’s fundraising ability, reputation of political savvy, conservative views and national Republican contacts all make him a credible contender for the Republican nomination. But as a nominee, he would begin with some serious liabilities.

Barbour’s lobbying wasn’t a big enough liability in Mississippi to destroy him, and it may actually have helped him, given the state’s need for federal dollars and Barbour’s understanding of which buttons to push on Capitol Hill.

But nationally — and in the current environment — Barbour’s business dealings would be a far, far bigger issue. The governor is often portrayed as a Washington insider and power broker, and unless the public mood changes dramatically over the next two years, that’s not an ideal résumé for a presidential candidate.

Mississippi is home to many fine people, but the state’s rankings in a number of categories paint a less-than-flattering picture for any state politician hoping to jump from Jackson to the White House.

Mississippi ranked 50th in per capita personal income in 2007, 48th in average annual pay (2007), first in infant mortality rate in 2006, first in people below the poverty level (2008), fifth in traffic fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles (2007), fourth in the 2008 unemployment rate, and 48th in people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree (2008).

If Michael Dukakis’ Massachusetts Miracle turned into a political liability, imagine what Barbour’s critics could do to him given the stereotype of Mississippi and a few figures from the 2010 Statistical Abstract.

Interestingly, few Mississippi insiders I talked with recently in the Delta see Haley in the Oval Office. But they also don’t see him taking his fishing pole and entering a peaceful, largely invisible retirement, either.

Some talk about Barbour running for Senate in 2014, when the current term of 72-year-old Thad Cochran (R), Mississippi’s senior Senator, ends. Barbour ran for the Senate many years ago, in 1982, against veteran Democratic Sen. John Stennis.

But others, noting that the Senate would be less appealing to Barbour after serving as his state’s chief executive, offer a far different scenario. They see him as a sort of super vice president, who could offer counsel to a Republican commander in chief about everything from policy to politics, or as a powerful White House chief of staff.

I’m guessing that Barbour hasn’t made a decision about his future because he doesn’t need to make one yet. As savvy as he is, he’ll look at all the angles before deciding on his next step.