By CARL LEUBSDORF
If Republicans score what looms as a substantial victory in November’s elections, one GOP leader will have a special reason to celebrate.
For Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, orchestrating a Republican comeback against a freshman Democratic president would be, in the words of Yogi Berra, “deja vu all over again.”
In 1994, when Republicans overturned a prior Democratic Congress, Barbour headed the Republican National Committee. This time, he heads the Republican Governors Association, where his fundraising prowess has fueled GOP state campaigns and helped other races.
Acclaimed by Politico as the “most powerful Republican in American politics,” Barbour concedes he may seek the goal that eluded Republicans after their 1994 triumph: the White House.
No potential GOP 2012 candidate is smarter, more politically adept, more engaging and more experienced. He’ll have an advantage in seeking the many Southern delegates. But as recent events and some of his own comments have shown, no candidate carries more political baggage.
A successful lobbyist for major economic interests at a time both Washington and his profession are highly suspect, Barbour has shown a propensity for saying controversial things that add to doubts this rapidly diversifying country would replace its first black president with a white Southern conservative.
Of course, if unemployment persists at near 10 percent, anything may be possible.
For better or worse, Barbour, 62, sounds like the good-old-boy Mississippian he is. Like Bill Clinton, he’s prone to spouting Southernisms, though with a more pronounced accent. Of Obama, he said, “Democrats are running from him like scalded dogs.”
A recent interview with the Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson and a media breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor illustrated some of his potential problems. Among them:
n His lobbying past. In the Hoover interview, Barbour contended it would be an asset because the next president would have to lobby Congress, other countries, the business community, labor unions and governors. “I was a pretty good one,” he told the breakfast session. When asked about lobbying for the tobacco industry, he volunteered that, while he hadn’t represented the gun industry, he was on the board of a company that owned Federal Cartridge, which makes ammunition.
n Race. He turned some heads, and attracted some negative columns, by telling Eugene Robinson that he attended integrated schools in predominantly segregated 1960s Mississippi and “never thought twice about it.” At the breakfast, he said he had “a very pleasant experience” at the University of Mississippi and told of sitting next to a black woman, Verna Bailey, who let him copy her notes. McClatchy Newspapers’ Margaret Talev contacted Bailey, who said she didn’t remember meeting him and that her time as Ole Miss’ first black female student “certainly wasn’t a very pleasant experience for me.”
n Social issues. He said he agreed with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels that candidates should stress economic issues over social ones because “people are concerned about jobs and the economy.” But fearing a backlash, he touted his “bona fides” as a social conservative by noting Americans United for Life honored him and said Mississippi was “the safest state in America for an unborn child,” an assessment the group made because of the state’s efforts to curb abortions. The liberal Huffington Post, among others, immediately noted Mississippi ranks near the bottom on such things as the death rate of children after they’re born.
n Obama’s background. Asked about those who question the president’s religion and birthplace, Barbour said he took “totally at face value” Obama’s statement he is a Christian. But he gave a nod to “birthers” seeking to sow doubts by adding, “This is a president that we know less about than any president in history.” Less than Franklin Pierce? Chester Arthur?
Barbour says he won’t consider running until after November, declaring not totally convincingly, “I haven’t given that the least bit of thought.” Someone has, because his political committee, Haley’s PAC, sent an appeal for funds recently to the first caucus state, Iowa.
He was asked about his statement that, if he lost weight, it would mean he either had cancer or was running for president. Still looking well fed, Barbour replied that he’d eaten the previous night at Morton’s Steak House.
But he said he’d ordered fish.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorfgmail.com.