When Haley Barbour left a lucrative Washington lobbying practice to run for governor of Mississippi, lots of the homefolks wondered what was up.
Why would he want to come back home and do battle with the Legislature when he was in the thick of things in the nation's capital, where he'd been a power-broker for years?
Barbour said he just wanted to help his home state reach its potential, but political skeptics thought he might have other things on his mind as well – like building his resume' for a run for higher office.
Now comes the news that Barbour was the top choice among Republican prospects for president in an unscientific online poll connected with the NCAA Final Four in St. Louis recently. James Pinkerton, a columnist for Newsday, a Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, wrote in a nationally distributed column last week that Barbour is the “hottie” right now in the early positioning for the 2008 Republican nomination.
Notable Republicans such as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been touting Barbour as a presidential candidate.
It all seems rather premature for a governor who is only 16 months into his first term, even if Barbour's credentials within the party are long established as a Reagan White House political adviser and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Barbour used just that word – “premature” – in saying he isn't running for president.
But all the talk wouldn't be going on if the governor himself weren't at least willing to entertain the prospect.
That's fine and in one sense flattering to Mississippi. But Barbour's first responsibility now is to Mississippians and to resolution of the thorny problems, including education funding and the overall budget, that have paralyzed the Legislature and in which he is playing a pivotal role.
Those touting Barbour nationally are pointing to his work for tort reform in Mississippi and his “holding the line on taxes and spending,” according to the Pinkerton column. No doubt the governor is sincere in his position, but it places the current budget battles before the Legislature in a somewhat different light knowing that Barbour is also playing to a national political audience.
Mississippi's struggles to adequately fund education and other government services, and a special budget session to be called before July 1 by Barbour, don't need to get caught up in early presidential posturing. An unequivocal statement from Barbour that he won't run for president in 2008 would remove that dynamic from the picture. Such a statement isn't likely, however, given that all the signs point to at least some interest by the governor in all the national talk about him.
Mississippians simply will have to factor in to what they are seeing from Barbour the probability that it is linked, at least in part, to something other than being governor of Mississippi.
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