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Miss. Gov. Barbour Weighs White House Bid


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Cairo.


I'm Renee Montagne.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is comporting himself more and more like a presidential candidate. The Republican is hiring key political operatives and showing up in Iowa and New Hampshire. But even as he works the national stage, his would-be campaign is hampered by early stumbles. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: As he considers a run for the Republican presidential nomination, Governor Barbour is spending less time in Mississippi's capital and more time in early primary and caucus states.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): Great. I'm Haley.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

ELLIOTT: At the Iowa GOP Chairman's dinner in Davenport last night, he blamed President Obama's policies for stifling the economy, and laid out his plan to reign in federal spending - all of it.

Gov. BARBOUR: Let me tell you something, we can save money at the Pentagon. Anybody thinks that you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense. And if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility about anything else.

ELLIOTT: It's a position intended to distinguish him, early, from others testing the GOP political waters. Barbour might not be as widely known as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, or Sarah Palin, but he comes with serious GOP credentials, dating back to his days as political director in the Reagan White House.

He chaired the Republican National Committee during the party's 1994 revolution and presided over the Republican Governor's Association during the last election. He spent much of his career as a high-powered Washington, D.C. lobbyist.

In speeches, the 63-year old Barbour doesn't shy away from his life as a political strategist, bragging that he saw the sausage factory up close. In Sioux City, Iowa this week, he told TV station KTIV being a lobbyist is not a liability.

Gov. BARBOUR: Lobbying? The next president of the United States, the day he gets elected, will start lobbying.

ELLIOTT: But GOP political consultant David Woodard says perhaps the biggest challenge the two-term governor faces is where he comes from Mississippi and its history of racial strife.

Dr. DAVID WOODARD (Political science, Clemson University): It just haunts the South. I mean, it's just the specter that haunts every politician I believe. And it's haunting him.

ELLIOTT: Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in South Carolina, says fair or not, just like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Barbour must be able to withstand scrutiny on the issue of race. And it's proving difficult.

Late last year, Barbour had to clarify comments he made to the Weekly Standard about desegregation not being that bad in his hometown of Yazoo City. Later, he refused to denounce a move by a Mississippi confederate group to get a car tag in honor of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, only to eventually say he would veto any such legislation.

Woodard says he would've expected the politically savvy Barbour to have been better prepared.

Dr. WOODARD: (Unintelligible) stumble out of the gate with a racial problem is almost fatal when you come from a Deep South state.

ELLIOTT: Adding to his troubles, Barbour's press secretary resigned Monday after circulating an email with an off-color joke about the tsunami in Japan. So, can the two-term governor rise to the top of the open GOP field?

Dr. WOODARD: Well, that's the great question a white guy from Mississippi running against a black guy from Chicago. And every time he talks, he's going to have - I mean, to a certain audience, not to me, but to a certain audience -that's going to be kind of grating.

ELLIOTT: That didn't seem to be a problem in Davenport last night.

Ms. CAROLYN SCOTT: I think it's great. I love the southern accent.

ELLIOTT: Carolyn Scott wants to hear more from Barbour.

Ms. SCOTT: He just seems very sincere and honest, and a sense of humor. And just an all around, all American guy.

ELLIOTT: Barbour says he won't make his decision until the Mississippi legislature wraps up its session next month. But, after Iowa, he's heading to donor-rich California to address the state GOP convention this weekend.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.