For the second time in five years, Haley Barbour finds himself in a highly visible role during a Gulf Coast catastrophe. As he nears the end of his eight-year stint as Mississippi’s governor, Mr. Barbour’s performance could help shift his political image from that of an insider party boss to an out-front crisis manager — and possible presidential candidate in 2012.
Mr. Barbour, 62, is proof that if you hang around long enough, even a good old boy lobbyist and political party animal can come back into fashion — or at least be recast by circumstance. A self-described “fat redneck,” he speaks in a marble-mouthed Mississippi drawl, loves Maker’s Mark bourbon, resembles an adult version of Spanky from the Little Rascals and fits no one’s ideal of a sleek new political model: squat, big-bellied and pink-jowled, he looks as if he should have a cigar in his mouth at all times (and occasionally does).
Mr. Barbour, one of the few politicians whose standing was enhanced by his response to Hurricane Katrina, has eagerly taken on the post of de facto director of tourism for the Gulf Coast, a task only slightly less daunting or thankless than heading a public relations campaign for BP. He has complained bitterly about what he calls the news media’s exaggerations and distortions about the spill.
Mr. Barbour exudes a throwback vibe harking to a time when politicians were unafraid to call themselves “politicians” and could actually admit to being well-connected insiders who know people in Washington, tell the occasional dirty joke and sip a cocktail or three after hours. Recently dubbed “the anti-Obama” by Newsweek, Mr. Barbour has attributes that could prove to be a counterintuitive asset for him if he decides to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. “If you think ahead to 2012, we are not going to beat the president with someone who has the same M.O. as the president,” said Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, of which Mr. Barbour is chairman.
Mr. Barbour, who is prohibited by Mississippi’s term-limit laws from seeking re-election, has spoken to friends, donors and a roster of Republican operatives about a possible presidential run in 2012. He has spoken at conservative gatherings and “party building” events and traveled to dozens of states, including Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucus, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Mr. Barbour said he was focused for now on this year’s elections, a point he hammers home in his political travels. Mr. Barbour said he would make a decision about his future after leaving the governor’s office.