A lack of "total certainty" drives the Mississippi governor out of a 2012 presidential run that would have been hobbled by Barbour's low public profile and past as an oil and tobacco lobbyist, writes Lloyd Grove. Plus, how Barbour’s wife nixed his White House bid.
After sending strong signals for several weeks that he was eager to leap into the fray—including multiple pre-campaign trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour abruptly announced Monday that he won’t be running for the Republican presidential nomination, after all.
“A candidate for president today is embracing a 10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else,” the 63-year-old Barbour said in a statement. “His (or her) supporters expect and deserve no less than absolute fire in the belly from their candidate. I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required.”
Barbour—who’s a superstar of the Republican establishment, where he’s known as a whip-smart strategist and monster fundraiser, but barely registers in national polls—spent Easter weekend mulling over his decision with his family in his hometown of Yazoo City. Although Barbour’s statement thanked his family for “their total support of my going forward, had that been what I decided,” intimates said his wife of four decades, Marsha, was passionately against his making the race.
“Marsha didn’t mind the other deal,” said a longtime friend, referring to Barbour’s two successful campaigns for governor, “but she couldn’t do this.” One of Barbour’s two sons, Sterling, had already gone on record saying he didn’t want his father to run, but if he did, he’d support him.
“Marsha absolutely didn’t want him to do it,” said another friend, who, like the first, asked not to be identified. “I don’t know if that would seal the deal. Usually for something as big as this, you can convince your family and your wife to go along. At the end of the day, your wife would say, ‘I know how important this is to you.’”
“A candidate for president today is embracing a 10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else.”
In the end Barbour—who jokingly describes himself as a “fat redneck”—had more belly than fire. He would have faced daunting challenges—not only his low public profile outside of Mississippi, but also his past as a Washington lobbyist earning millions of dollars by representing Big Oil and Big Tobacco among other powerful corporate interests. As Iowa Republican Doug Wagner summarized Barbour’s downside to Newsweek: “This is your father’s Oldsmobile. He’s got to find a way to overcome that and make that generational step.”
Still, Barbour’s withdrawal came as a surprise to the media-political complex, which had been closely tracking Barbour’s frequent visits to the early primary and caucus states, and noting his high level of enthusiasm. It was a shock in Mississippi, where Barbour was rounding out his second term as governor. “Nobody was more surprised than folks here in Mississippi,” said Clarke Reed, the godfather of the state’s modern GOP who was a Barbour mentor at the beginning of his political career, when he was a 20-year-old kid who dropped out of Ole Miss in 1968 to run 30 counties for Richard Nixon.
In more recent days, out on the trail, Barbour sounded as if he were already a declared candidate. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think [I could win],” he told me in Iowa, before correcting himself. “Obviously, I haven’t made a decision to run.”
Republican fundraiser Fred Malek, who helped Barbour collect more than $100 million for the Republican Governors Association in 2010 and increase the number of GOP governors from 22 to 29, said any presidential candidate would be well-advised to get Barbour’s counsel. Barbour has a long and successful track record, notably as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1994, when the GOP took back the majority in both the House and Senate. “As someone approaches the nomination, the presumptive nominee would be wise to seek out Haley to take a leadership position guiding the campaign,” Malek said.
In his statement, Barbour acknowledged that many people had reason to think he’d take the plunge. “Hundreds of people have encouraged me to run and offered both to give and raise money for a presidential campaign. Many volunteers have organized events in support of my pursuing the race. Some have dedicated virtually full time to setting up preliminary organizations in critical, early states and to helping plan what has been several months of intensive activity. I greatly appreciate each and every one of them and all their outstanding efforts. If I have disappointed any of them in this decision, I sincerely regret it.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.