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Politics

Barbour's Path Won't Lead to the White House

What helps the Mississippi governor in the South hurts him elsewhere.

Haley Barbour’s new year and his nascent presidential campaign are off to an inglorious start.

The Mississippi governor’s bumbling attempt to steer clear of Southern race politics suggests he faces an uphill campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination for 2012.

The popular seven-year governor and former chairman of the Republican National Party benefits from long roots in the party apparatus, executive experience and a demonstrated ability to raise boatloads of money for Republican candidates and causes.

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He’d win -- or come close -- in a string of Southern Republican nomination primaries, especially if, as we expect, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin bows out of the race and if ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee opts out or fares poorly early next year in Iowa and New Hampshire. With unquestioned conservative credentials, Barbour would draw some support away from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and others.

But what gives him an edge in the South, where his good-ol’-boy image is welcome and familiar, would doom him in other regions. He has shown no ability to free himself from the often toxic Southern politics of race, and if he doesn’t figure out how to do that quickly, there is no way he can win the GOP nomination. Republicans need a candidate who can confront President Obama on the issues, not one whose comments and actions keep race on the table and take some of the focus away from the incumbent and his record.

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Any Southern Republican carries some baggage in a national race, as unfair as that may be in some cases. But Barbour has hurt himself with comments and actions that will dog him for months if he runs.

When he commuted the sentences of two black women convicted of armed robbery, he conditioned the release on one of the women donating a kidney to the other, who requires dialysis. Some critics saw political designs in his decision. Others suggested he would not have placed similar conditions on two white inmates.

But he did the most damage to his presidential ambitions in an interview with the conservative-leaning Weekly Standard, suggesting that the violence and ugliness of racial confrontations in the 1960s largely bypassed Yazoo City, Miss., his hometown. "I just don't remember it as being that bad," Barbour is quoted as saying.

In the article, Barbour also discusses Mississippi’s Citizens' Councils, which opposed integration. He remembers the councils as a positive force and "an organization of town leaders" that didn't tolerate the racist attitudes of the Ku Klux Klan. After the article caused a small political firestorm, Barbour backpedaled, quickly noting the town leaders were not saints and that segregationist Citizens’ Councils were indefensible.

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Since Barbour has been in politics for many years, opposition research teams from other GOP candidates will be able to dig up other touchy race comments if he runs. And you can bet they’ll share what they find with cable TV and talk radio folks.

Even without those comments, though, Barbour would have trouble. He is not well-known outside the South. His conservative-friendly platform of tax cuts, spending cuts, cleaning up Washington and shrinking the size and reach of the federal government won’t mean much if he can’t break through the crush of similarly positioned candidates in the Iowa caucuses. And there is absolutely no reason to expect he would appeal to independents and moderates, who will be important in the general election.

There’s an old line in politics about how every time a governor looks in the bathroom mirror at the start of the day, he greets himself by saying, “Good morning, Mr. President.”

Given his self-inflicted wounds and early election math, Barbour might be better off saying, “Hello again, Governor,” and leaving it at that.

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