JACKSON, Miss. | If the Republican Party is in danger of being marginalized as a conservative, white-male Southern enclave, is Haley Barbour - the longtime Washington power broker and current Mississippi governor - the best person to turn things around?
Many rank-and-file Republicans and party leaders say yes as the 61-year-old Mr. Barbour prepares to ramp up his national profile this month with back-to-back trips to the early presidential voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Barbour will headline fundraisers in both states but says the visits are part of his duties as incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Both states have gubernatorial races next year.
“I’ve told everyone I know that every Republican ought to be focused on governors’ races in 2009 and the 2010 elections,” Mr. Barbour told Associated Press.
A former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Mr. Barbour has emerged as a leader of his party’s efforts to retool for the future. His allies think he could be a formidable presidential contender if he chooses to play.
“Haley’s unique in that he’s a brilliant strategist who led the party and has also run in and won a competitive governor’s race,” said Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman. “He commands a lot of respect from rank-and-file Republicans, as well as the leadership of the party and many Democrats. He’s a happy warrior who stands up for conservative principles.”
Mr. Barbour typically sidesteps questions about his presidential aspirations, saying he will wait until after next year’s elections to decide.
With his good-ol’-boy charm and a drawl as thick as Mississippi mud, Mr. Barbour at first blush might not fit anyone’s idea of the standard-bearer for a party looking to diversify. He’s a former lobbyist who made millions representing tobacco and other business interests, even as lobbyists increasingly have become stigmatized by Democrats and Republicans alike.
However, Mr. Barbour’s political skills have been tested and proved in Mississippi, where he defeated a Democratic incumbent to become just the second Republican elected governor since Reconstruction, and at the national level, where he helped rescue the Republican Party during another low period for the party.
Mr. Barbour became RNC chairman in 1993 after Bill Clinton was elected president and Democrats held strong majorities in Congress. Led by Mr. Barbour and Newt Gingrich, another potential 2012 contender, Republicans rallied in 1994, claiming majorities in the Senate and in the House for the first time in 40 years.
The Republican gains that year were helped by the collapse of the Mr. Clinton’s health care reform plan; President Obama is making a politically risky attempt to reform the nation’s health care system this year, with potential reverberations in next year’s midterm elections.
Mr. Barbour left the RNC in 1997 and built a lucrative lobbying practice before returning to Mississippi to run for governor. He defeated Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in 2003 and was re-elected easily in 2007; term limits will require him to step down after 2011.
Mr. Barbour has governed as a conservative, which is sure to endear him with Republicans across the country. But because he comes from a state in the heart of the old Confederacy that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, his appeal to independents and Democrats is open to question.
Mr. Barbour cut Medicaid costs by imposing renewal rules that led to thousands of people being dropped from the rolls. He also signed into law this year a major cigarette-tax increase, raising the rate from 18 cents a pack to 68 cents.
From the beginning, Mr. Barbour pushed legislators to trim the state budget by closing some state parks and cutting other expenses. While he claims credit for having fixed the budget problems “without raising anybody’s taxes,” local officials complained that they were forced to increase taxes because some state expenses were forced down on them.View Entire Story
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