IN this age of blow-dried, homogenous politicians, Haley Barbour sounds like a throwback to the regional political bosses of old. The burly new chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) makes no attempt to hide his roots. The Southern-speak rolls off his tongue like water down the Mississippi: "Ah tohld someone...." "Ah believe...."
The accent can be a little misleading. Mr. Barbour left his native Mississippi long ago and established a reputation as one of the leading lawyer-lobbyists in Washington. Both his understanding of the world beyond the capital and his inside-the-beltway savvy will come in handy as Barbour undertakes the daunting task of moving the RNC in a different direction.
Barbour, who won a heated leadership race in January, sees his task as twofold. First he wants to redirect the party's resources from Washington into grass-roots organizing at the state level. "There's a lot more to be gained from outside Washington," he asserts, "in the development and articulation of the Republican message." As part of that strategy, Barbour has been traveling around the country recently to meet with local Republican officials.
Barbour's other goal is to change the party apparatus from being only a fund-raising organ into an organization that can provide the party with intellectual leadership.
It was the failure to articulate ideas well that contributed, in large measure, to George Bush's 1992 defeat, Barbour believes.
"Our biggest mistake in 1992 was that people didn't sense that the Republican Party stood for something," he says in a telephone interview.
Barbour believes the RNC can take the lead in reasserting the party's principles. His model is the way former Sen. William Brock ran the RNC in the late 1970s.
"That was the period when supply-side became Republican dogma ... and the Republicans were really seen as the party of ideas," he notes.
So Barbour vows to resurrect some of Mr. Brock's innovations. For example, he wants to start a publication modeled on Common Sense, the quarterly journal of ideas published by the RNC in the 1970s.
He also aims to revive policy task forces made up of former administration officials and "think-tank types."
The key issues Barbour believes the GOP should emphasize are economic - principally the party's opposition to President Clinton's "government-growth package."
Mr. Clinton, he says, "has given us an economic package that reminds people why they're Republicans."
On social issues, Barbour warns, the party must tread warily. Although he is personally opposed to abortion, the new chairman doesn't want the GOP to alienate pro-choice voters.
"We have to be careful people don't confuse principles with intolerance," he says. "We're a broad, mainstream, and diverse party, and we can't give people the impression that if you don't agree with Haley Barbour on everything you're not welcome."
Barbour is confident that, despite their often-noisy public spats, the differences between liberal Republicans like Gov. William Weld (R) of Massachusetts and hard-core conservatives like columnist Patrick Buchanan can be bridged.
"Bill Weld and Pat Buchanan agree on more than they disagree," he asserts. "My job is to emphasize the great principles that unite us: peace through strength, tough on crime, individual responsibility and freedom, small government."