SID SALTER: Barbour's GOP presidential hopes no longer seem far-fetched

By Sid Salter

Can a Mississippian win a major American political party’s presidential nomination? Seems we’re about to learn the answer to that question.
Like him or loathe him, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is actively running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Barbour has high-profile staff members with national reputations and significant prior presidential campaign or Republican National Committee experience on the ground working in the key primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
The obstacles to a Barbour presidential bid are being vetted in a deluge of media examinations of the Yazoo City native’s life and work – both his political life and his business life as one of the country’s most successful and influential Washington lobbyists prior to being elected Mississippi’s governor in 2003.
Barbour’s heard the criticism before – he’s Southern, he’s portly, he speaks with a drawl, he’s from a small state with few electoral votes, he’s a lobbyist who served some controversial clients, he’s insensitive to the poor – and most recently – he’s tone-deaf on race.
Strangely enough, one of the more eloquent defenses of Barbour’s racial views and actions came not from a Republican sycophant or a conservative media apologist but from a fellow Mississippian who could not disagree more with Barbour’s politics.
In a March 20 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Greenville native Hodding Carter III – the son of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Delta Democrat-Times newspaper editor Hodding Carter – told reporter Mackenzie Carpenter that Barbour was not a bigot and called him “a wonderful guy.”
Carter, who served as a State Department official in the administration of former President Jimmy Carter, said Barbour’s Southern roots may actually be an asset in a presidential bid.
“He’s (Barbour’s) much smarter than the image he presents,” said Carter. “He is constantly calculating what he needs to do with a wink and a nod to appeal to the hard core right-wing base and at the same time be defended by friends who say he’s not a racist, which is true.”
Carter was also quoted as telling the Pennsylvania newspaper that “there is no one in the base of the Republican Party who is going to sit there and worry about parsing … the causes of the Civil War. Instead you have someone who can speak to the base, which is in the South, and solidify it by his candidacy. His Southernness is one hell of a leg up for him. Of course, can he carry Michigan? Well, George Wallace embarrassed Jimmy Carter in Michigan. It’s possible.”
“Possible” is a word that Barbour is hearing more and more as his exploration of a 2012 presidential bid gains traction. Why? The political cards have generally fallen his way.
Barbour’s well-publicized gaffes on race haven’t helped and he takes questions on the gaffes from the media frequently. But Barbour told me in a recent conversation in his office in the Sillers Building in Jackson that rank-and-file Republican voters he encounters in Iowa and in other key states “want to talk about jobs, the economy and their own worries over whether their children are going to grow up in the same kind of country they did and have the same opportunities.”
At this juncture, Barbour’s political friends and enemies alike agree that he’s got about as good a chance as any Republican in the primaries and better than most because of his contacts in the Republican Party proper. He has a long list of political “chits” he holds from a successful tenure as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in which he raised and spent $102 million supporting GOP gubernatorial hopefuls who won nine out of 10 swing states, including eight statehouses that had been held by Democratic governors.
In a GOP presidential primary with no real favorites, that proven track record along with Barbour’s successful run as Republican National Committee chairman in the 1990s makes him at the very least a serious contender.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu, where he is journalist-in-residence, or contact him Mississippi State University Libraries, P.O Box 5408, Mississippi State, MS 39762.