Analysis: Barbour maximizes speculation about '12

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour knows how to drag out the game of political speculation, and he’s doing it now to maximum effect for a national audience.

Will he run for president in 2012? Will he? Will he?

Don’t expect an answer anytime soon — and for good reason. The 63-year-old Yazoo City native isn’t about to squelch the kind of chatter that keeps his name in print, online and on the TV and radio.

A candidate who commits too early becomes boring to pundits who thrive on the is-he-or-isn’t-he banter. Committed candidates also invite in-depth scrutiny of their personal lives and records in public office. Who wants to be first under the media microscope?

By contrast, a potential candidate can repeatedly generate attention with a variation on: “Gosh, I’m flattered you asked if I’m running, but…” (a) I have other serious business to conduct, (b) I want to pray about it and talk to my family or (c) now’s just not the time to decide.

That’s pretty much what Barbour’s been doing the last several years.

His time as governor ends in January 2012. He’d been saying the past few months that as head of the Republican Governors Association, he was focused on electing GOP state leaders on Nov. 2, 2010.

As he unveiled his state budget Nov. 15, Barbour was asked the inevitable question about running for president. He said he and his wife, Marsha, have started talking about it but he hasn’t set an “artificial deadline” to decide. He said Mississippi has serious business during the legislative session that’s scheduled from January to early April, and he’s focused on that.

“I will still have some time the rest of this year and for the next few months to think about whether this is a thing to do, who else might run, might there be somebody who has a better chance of winning than I do, family considerations — there are serious considerations,” Barbour said.

“Quite candidly, when you’ve been around as long as I have and have worked in the White House, the idea of thinking about running for president yourself is pretty, uh, uh, pretty serious business. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Barbour was White House political director for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. He headed the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997. He was a Washington power lobbyist before returning to Mississippi and winning the governorship in 2003.

Barbour spent months making appearances before declaring for the 2003 race. He’d talk policy and offer some not-so-subtle criticism of the Democratic governor at the time, Ronnie Musgrove. It created a buzz about his candidacy, so that by the time Barbour made a formal announcement, everyone already knew he was running.

Speculation about a Barbour presidential campaign started about the time he tossed his first socks into a drawer at the Governor’s Mansion. Starting in about 2006, Barbour finessed questions about a 2008 White House run by saying he was still working on Hurricane Katrina recovery.

As chairman of the Republican Governors Association from June 2009 until late this month, Barbour raised truckloads of money and made umpteen dozen campaign appearances for GOP candidates from Oklahoma to Maine and from Iowa to New Hampshire.

Iowa and New Hampshire? Aren’t those the first battlegrounds of the 2012 presidential election? Say, doesn’t that mean he’s running?