As Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour steps up his efforts to explore a possible presidential run, he faces one question that none of the other prospective candidates will have to address: can a back-slapping, Ole Miss Rebels fan with a molasses-rich drawl connect on a human level with caucus-goers and primary voters whose cultural roots are far from Yazoo City?
Iowa State Senator Bill Dix, who remains one of the more coveted endorsements in the State Capitol among 2012 GOP hopefuls, said that the vast majority of Iowa voters are more concerned about leadership qualities than regional traits.
“It may be a bigger issue with the general population, but as far as caucus-goers are concerned, they connect with people that are personable and bring forward new ideas and approaches that create enthusiasm,” Dix said. “Those who would suggest that Barbour’s being from the Deep South is a handicap, I think, are overstating the case.”
Jamie Burnett, who ran Romney’s New Hampshire political operation in 2008 but is currently unaligned with any prospective 2012 candidate, agreed that Barbour’s Deep South roots would not be a major issue for him if he decides to campaign in the nation’s first primary state.
“The problem for Barbour right now is that he’s not here, and no one knows him — there are candidates with a great deal more name recognition and popular support,” Burnett said. “Barbour needs to begin to develop an organization here sooner rather than later. If he wants to compete for the space that’s currently occupied, he needs to start doing that now.”
One need only look at former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s victory in the most recent caucuses to find the latest evidence that a Southern politician can be successful in Iowa. Southern presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush also saw their paths to the White House run through Iowa.