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“There’s nothing about this that is particularly encouraging for state financing, which is why we don’t want the federal government to stick us with a huge unfunded mandate for health care reform,” he said. “Most states can’t pay for it but one way, which is raising taxes. We ain’t got any money. We don’t get to print it like the federales do.”

He dismissed the news that retail sales rose in recent national surveys. “Well, that happens when you sell 700,000 cars,” he said with a laugh, referring to the Obama administration’s “cash for clunkers” auto subsidy program.

But in the long term, the governor said, the economic recovery may turn out to be more like a saucer - a drop, followed by a long, flat expanse before rising up again.

“How do we get a recovery in consumer spending with declining employment, difficulty in borrowing the money we were borrowing just a year or two ago, and having to pay more for the credit that we can get?” he said.

“We’re going to continue to have a harder time. It may be 2015 before revenue’s back to where it was in 2008.”

Mr. Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1990s when the party took over Congress with its “Contract With America,” has been quietly raising his profile. Term-limited as governor, with an exit date of 2011, the 61-year-old was more forthcoming than most when asked whether he plans to run for president in 2012.

“I doubt it,” he said. Still, he said he would not decide until after the 2010 midterm elections, and he’s already taken trips to New Hampshire and Iowa, prompting political pundits to mention his name whenever talk turns to the next presidential election.

Perhaps one indication that he may run, though, was that he pushed away a large piece of chocolate cake during the interview and sipped only tea - at one point recycling his old tea bag for another cup.

With his folksy country sayings delivered in a rich Southern drawl - he often dissuades those who think he may have just fallen off a turnip truck by saying, “I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night” - the politician is poised to run on a strong record if he jumps into the race.

He was re-elected as governor in 2007 with 58 percent of the vote - only the second governor since Reconstruction to be elected to a second consecutive term. Mr. Barbour also has firsthand experience on the difficulties states face. He balanced budgets without tax increases after inheriting a budget deficit of $720 million, all the while pushing more money toward education.

But he said the massive $787 billion stimulus program pushed through Congress by Mr. Obama could soon prove disastrous for state budgets. With the billions of stimulus dollars now pouring in set to expire in 2011, states will soon find themselves with huge shortfalls, little fat to trim, and possibly the lingering effects of the recession.

As head of the Republican Governors Association, Mr. Barbour is also his party’s point man on some 39 gubernatorial races scheduled this year and next.

Asked whether gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey this year will be bellwethers on the nation’s political mood, he said he thinks “they will not be very much affected by the national environment.”

The results of those two races, he said, will have a tremendous effect nationwide. He noted that in 1993, a year after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president, Republicans won the Virginia and New Jersey governor races. The following year, Republicans seized control of both the Senate and the House.

The Virginia and New Jersey races in 1993 “stimulated our candidate recruiting to such a degree that this happened: We elected 73 freshmen Republicans to the House. More than half of them made the decision to run for Congress after the November 1993 election,” the governor said.

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