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Haley Barbour's Challenge: Dropping Deep South's Baggage

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour chats with some Iowa Republicans, March 15.
Charlie Neibergall
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour chats with some Iowa Republicans, March 15.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi clearly appears to have some built-in advantages in the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

He knows better than most his party's inner workings, having served in key roles from his days in the Reagan White House's political operation forward.

Of course, strong and long ties to the party's establishment aren't necessarily positive for a candidate in a GOP with a strong anti-establishment movement like the Tea Party.

Indeed, his resume could prove a disadvantage to Barbour that other Republican candidates try to exploit in the current climate.

Reporting for Morning Edition, NPR's Debbie Elliott examined what could be another problem for Barbour — the race issue.

An excerpt:

DEBBIE: 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.

WOODARD: "It just haunts the South. It's just the spector that haunts every politician I believe and it's haunting him."

DEBBIE: 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 KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, only to eventually say he would veto any such legislation.

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

WOODWARD: "To stumble out of the gate with a racial problem is almost fatal when you come from a Deep South state."

DEBBIE: Adding to his troubles, Barbour's press secretary resigned Monday after circulating an email with an off-color joke about the tsunami in Japan.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.