Disclosure - I am now and have always been a citizen of the great sovereign state of Mississippi. Haley Barbour has been governor of my state for nearly eight years. Like any politician, I have not agreed with all his policies (in fact I have vehemently disagreed with some), but generally the man stands on good conservative principals and has done a good job governing a state that is handicapped more than most (that's not a shot any my state, its just a fact).
This is not an endorsement of Haley Barbour for president. Nor am I stating that he is the best, or among the best potential candidates to be president. I will make the case, however, that he would be at very least a capable candidate, and we shouldn't sell short his campaign for the nomination.
Barbour Presidential Candidacy Viable? Look at the Landscape
So far we've only had one person kind of announce intentions in seeking the Republican nomination. Even given this, we've already had "the field" analyzed ad nauseum (therefore I don't feel so bad throwing in my two-cents). However, make take is looking specifically from the standpoints of how other candidates compare to Barbour, and vice versa.
At this point, either Huckabee or Mitt Romney would be considered "the frontrunner." Of the two, conventional wisdom dictates that Huckabee would be the bigger challenge to Barbour to overcome, and that an early moderately successful Huckabee campaign would drive the Barbour campaign out of business. I have a slightly different take.
The conventional view is that Huckabee and Barbour, both being of the Southern-governor ilk, would split the evangelical social conservative vote (that dominates politics in the South). While I don't ever think its wise to cede a significant constituency to another candidate, I don't think that, in terms of the early Republican voting states, social issues will be primary voting issues. This is to say that even among staunch social conservatives, I believe fiscal issues will trump. With a competent communications team (that I know Barbour has), Haley can own this issue versus Huckabee. Huckabee is the face of the "Fair Tax," but Barbour has put fiscal conservatism into practice in Mississippi. Before the flareups in the mid West over labor situations, Barbour was successfully making relatively significant cuts in Mississippi's budget. And let's remember, Barbour has a recent political record to run on. The economy had to yet to take a short leap off the long, debt-encrusted pier when Governor Huckabee left office.
The issue - the Southern thing - the idea that two Southern politicians will cancel each other out, diluting their voting pools. I would argue that, essentially, Governor Barbour is a southern politician, while Governor Huckabee was a Southern politician. Huckabee's high national profile and role on Fox News has served to give the Arkansan a greater national profile, yet it weaken, I believe, his "Southern bona fides." That inherently is not a good or bad thing, but I do believe it makes the South-vs-South issue much less of a problem for Barbour.
Governor Romney's primary issues are well documented. Along with Huckabee, Romney would rightly be considered a front-runner due to his high national profile, relatively successful stint as Massachusetts chief executive, and not insignificant capability to self-fund (aka the Dude's got more money than Davy Crockett). Compared to Barbour, Romney has a more polished and professional style. Sometimes that is an asset. Sometimes it is not. Romney's biggest obstacle to overcome is not his Mormonism, but his conservative credentials. In a time when Ronald Reagan's stature is growing (and not just among conservatives, mind you), Romney will be haunted by his now-famous 1994 statement, "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush." This is not an indictment by me of Mr. Romney. I admire the man. And I do believe he has become more conservative as he has aged (who doesn't???). President Reagan did the very same. However, I am saying that this will be a problem.
Barbour has been a popular, two-term, generally successful conservative governor of the country's most conservative state (I LOVE the photo in that link. Probably one of my Uncles that live there . . .). Even without Barbour's actual record of governing by generally conservative principals, that fact alone leaves his conservative bona fides virtually unquestionable.
Another advantage which I think Barbour can draw against Romney (against all other candidates, actually, but may prove most useful against Romney) is governance during a crisis. All governors inevitably face various degrees of states of emergency during their tenures, but Barbour faced the Mother of Them All. His leadership through Katrina and the Aftermath has generally been recognized by all but the most partisan hacks to be commendable. Compared to the Blanco/Nagin fiasco that happened next door in Louisiana, Barbour essentially looked like John Mclean taking down Hans. Romney did a great job pulling the Salt Lake Olympics back from the abyss, and has more than adequately managed demonstrated his business acumen, but nothing comes close to having the most populated regions of your state ravaged by the most deadly storm of modern times.
Barbour's most significant advantage against Gingrich may be that he's not Gingrich. Regardless of what happens from here, the two will forever be giants of the modern conservative movement - the two people most responsible for the Republican Revolution of 1994 were then minority leader Gingrich - the face of the uprising - and Barbour, the chief strategist as head of the RNC. Since that time, Newt has kept an amazingly high profile, made a good deal of money, and has knowingly and/or unknowingly courted controversy. Barbour, by comparison, made a ton of money, sought and gained a relatively low-profile political office, and has been generally controversy-free.
Gingrich has been an interesting study in unpredictability. He remains a fire-brand small-government conservative but spouts big ideas of transformative change. He laments liberal policies as dangerous, but also works with Hillary Clinton on healthcare and films environmental commercials with Nancy Pelosi. He declares "the age of Reagan" to be over, but produces a glowing documentary of the President through his media company.
For what its worth, I think that Gingrich got a bad wrap on his "age of Reagan" comment. I believe that what he was trying to say was that we have to focus our attention on the battles of our time, which were different from the battles of Reagan's. I don't think (hope) he was meaning to abandon Reaganite principals.
Newt's national profile will be difficult someone like Barbour to overcome, but then again he may not have to because of that very profile.
I do not think Palin is running. Were she to run, I believe she would have a bigger "Huckabee Effect" relative to Barbour than Huckabee.
Similar to Mr. Gingrich, Haley Barbour's most significant competition may be Haley Barbour. The governor is independently wealthy, but nothing on the scale of a Mitt Romney. However, I don't believe this will be a real impediment to candidacy. From his time as RNC head, years of political activism, and (wait for it . . . lobbying . . .) Barbour's potential donor contact list is as impressive as anyone's, and more impressive than most.
Barbour has a distinct Yazoo-City style southern drawl. But John Kennedy had the classic Quimby dialect, Jimmy Carter sounded like a bad caricature (governed like one, too), and even Slick Willie was pretty folksy when need be. I give the electorate a little more credit than to dismiss a candidate because of the way he pronounces his syllables.
Its a crowded field, and Haley Barbour could go the way of Tommy Thompson in 2008, or Mike Huckabee in 2008. Either way, the rest of the field, GOP leaders, and conservative voters should take his presidential aspirations seriously.