Analysis: Miss. gov juggles work with RGA 'hobby'

Mississippi legislators are hashing out public policy at the Capitol until at least early April, the economy is struggling and anyone who’s been awake the past few months knows the state budget has seen better times.

It would seem Haley Barbour has plenty to do as governor of Mississippi.

He has also been juggling duties the past few months as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Barbour took over the RGA post last summer after South Carolina’s Mark Sanford stepped aside amid embarrassing revelations about an affair.

Barbour was halfway through his year as vice chairman when he moved up to the top spot, so he’s spending a year and a half as chairman. His regular term started in November.

“Being governor is my job. And this is my hobby,” 62-year-old Barbour said of his RGA work.

As leader of the GOP governors, Barbour travels to the nation’s capital to advocate policy positions he and his colleagues have taken, including voicing concerns about proposed federal health legislation that could affect states’ budgets.

There are 37 states with governor’s races this year; Mississippi is not among them. While Barbour said he’ll travel to many states to raise money and help candidates, he was vague about how much of his time that will take.

“Obviously, the further away you go, the more time-consuming they are,” Barbour said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

The big-population, big-impact states of California, Florida, New York and Texas will absorb much of the attention — and the money — with their races for chief executive. But the big states don’t have a monopoly on interesting contests.

“I mean, there are actually competitive races all over the country,” Barbour said. “Believe it or not, three of the six governors in New England are Republicans, and none of the three is running for re-election. So we’ll be defending three very tough seats up there — Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.”

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell is ending his second term and can’t run this year. Barbour sees hope for Republicans: “Pennsylvania has a history of one party having it for eight years and then the other party having it for eight years.”

Barbour said Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin will have competitive races. He said Republicans have “some hard races to defend” in the West, including in Arizona, where Republican Gov. Jan Brewer moved up from secretary of state to the governorship in January 2009 after Democrat Janet Napolitano left to become U.S. secretary of homeland security.

While the RGA does not choose favorites among Republican candidates in contested races, individual governors are free to do so. Barbour last year threw his public support to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who’s being challenged by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“I’m for Sen. Hutchison remaining Sen. Hutchison for life,” Barbour said with a smile.

The RGA gig, of course, is not Barbour’s first foray into top-tier politics. The Yazoo City native was White House political director in the 1980s for President Ronald Reagan, and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997. Barbour was also a high-profile Washington lobbyist before unseating Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in November 2003.

Barbour is term-limited and can’t run for governor again in 2011. No worries, though. That just gives pundits plenty of time to speculate about whether Barbour will run for president in 2012. Given the power-building value of having his name in the news, he’s not about to squelch that talk anytime soon.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press