UPDATE: It's either Haley's comet to 2012 or GOP kingmaker

BOSTON — Hurricane Katrina curtailed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s presidential aspirations last time around. His response to the devastation from the Gulf oil spill and his work to elect Republican governors this year are stirring talk of a White House bid in 2012.

Barbour’s standing within the Republican Party is so high these days that he’s certain to be a force in the presidential race even if he decides not to challenge President Barack Obama. The governor insists his top priority is helping his state, devastated by the oil spill, and lifting the GOP in the November elections.

Beyond that, Republicans uniformly suggest that one of two things will happen: Either Barbour becomes a serious contender for president, siphoning staff and donors from likely opponents, or he takes on the role of kingmaker, giving his blessing and delivering his contacts as a former national party chairman to his anointed candidate.

Barbour can easily stoke both possibilities through his current role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that allows him to travel the country, raise money and audition staff all under the auspices of getting his colleagues elected in four months.

“We’ve got to keep our focus on this fall,” he said Friday during a quick visit to Massachusetts for a meeting of the National Governors Association. “We can’t wait until 2012 to take our country back.”

He tells his potential White House rivals the same thing.

And he says the oil spill hasn’t changed his political calculus on a future presidential run.

“I’ve always said I’m going to wait until after the 2010 elections, and then we’ll see if there’s anything to consider,” Barbour said in a brief interview with The Associated Press.

Usually a high-profile presence when the nation’s governors gather twice a year, Barbour made a low-key, truncated appearance at the NGA’s weekend summer meeting and scuttled plans to raise money for Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker.

He arrived in Boston midday Friday and planned to leave Saturday evening to return to Mississippi. No media briefing was planned. No glitzy fundraising events were scheduled. He was tending to business behind closed doors as the head of the committee charged with electing Republican governors.

“We’ve got some oil issues on the coast,” he said, making clear that his attention was elsewhere.

It’s not usually this way.

Barbour, 62, is an affable former Republican National Committee chairman and Washington lobbyist who is so well-known within political circles that friends and foes alike call him “Haley.” To a national audience, he is one of the five Gulf state governors dealing with the spill, offering a more upbeat outlook than another Republican also mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

In his second term as governor, Barbour must leave office in 2011 under state law.

He assumed control of the RGA a year ago and his political standing within the GOP has soared since. Barbour has raised jaw-dropping amounts of money, $19 million in the last quarter alone. And he’s emerged as a go-to Republican elder in part by filling the leadership vacuum created by the troubled tenure of party chairman Michael Steele.

Even Democrats recognize his likely strength in a Republican presidential primary.

“He’d be very compelling and very formidable,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the chairman of the committee that works to elect Democratic governors.

Barbour was the center of the action — if not the focus of much of the attention — when he presided over an RGA meeting in Texas last fall and the winter NGA meeting in Washington, D.C., in February.

Talk about a Barbour presidential bid grew loud at the last gathering, and the portly governor played to it when he quipped: “If you see me losing 40 pounds that means I’m either running or have cancer.”

All the buzz got Barbour advisers, and some say the governor himself, mulling over whether they should start plotting a White House run. A meeting in Jackson, Miss., was held where advisers say one group encouraged Barbour to start laying the groundwork for a run while another group argued he should focus on the fall campaign.

One adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the conversation was private, says Barbour made it clear he would wait until after November to decide whether to take any steps toward a run. Another speaking privately says Barbour also started telling people to “keep their powder dry” when it came to choosing who to back in 2012.

Then the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded.

Barbour found himself in the middle of the response effort and doubling as the state’s tourism chief, encouraging people to visit the coastline that hadn’t yet been coated in oil. Democrats jumped on him for saying in May that the oil spill wasn’t comparable to Exxon-Valdez and for expressing concern in June that an escrow fund would make it less likely BP would pay all they owed.

Given that oil is now on the state’s shores, advisers say he’s been forced to scale back political activity on behalf of the RGA. They say there have been no other discussions about 2012 since Barbour made clear he would wait until November.

Liz Sidoti/The Associated Press

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