Haley Barbour shocker: 'I'm not running for president'

Haley Barbour was seen as a top Republican candidate for president in 2012, but he said Monday he will not seek the nomination.

Jim Cole/AP
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour speaks to a New Hampshire voter in Manchester, N.H., on April 14. Barbour's trips to early-primary states gave the impression he would run for president in 2012.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) shocked the political world Monday by announcing he will not run for president in 2012.

"I will not be a candidate for president next year," he said in a statement. "This has been a difficult personal decision."

The two-term governor and former Republican National Committee chairman was showing all the telltale signs of an impending campaign – traveling to key early primary and caucus states, hiring staff, raising money for his political action committee. And if Governor Barbour had opted to run, he could have called in chits from Republicans all over the country, not only from his RNC days but also from his time more recently as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Barbour’s talent as a shrewd political operator and prolific fundraiser are the stuff of high admiration in Republican Party circles. Within Mississippi, he is credited with using his lobbying skills to good effect with a legislature dominated by Democrats. Barbour also won high marks for his handling of hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated the Mississippi coast.

But securing his party’s presidential nomination was never going to be easy, even in a field of Republicans that has yet to generate much excitement. Barbour’s thick drawl and Deep South identity would have been a difficult sell outside the South. He compounded the “southern challenge” himself with comments he made last December about civil rights and white “Citizens Councils.”

In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Barbour gave credit to the Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., for keeping the Ku Klux Klan away. But after an outcry over what some people construed as support for the segregationist actions of such councils, Barbour walked back his comment. He called Citizens Councils “totally indefensible, as is segregation.”

Another element of Barbour’s résumé – his years as a K Street lobbyist, including for Big Tobacco – would have made him a tough sell among the populist tea party movement, which is leery of anyone too close to the Washington establishment.

But political analysts cite another factor when considering Barbour’s decision not to run for president: his family. When his wife, Marsha Barbour, said in a TV interview in Mississippi last month that the personal sacrifice her husband would have to make to run for president “horrifies her,” that set off alarm bells for people who know the Barbours.

“There is nobody that Haley loves more – not even politics – than Marsha,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC.

Barbour’s departure from the nascent 2012 presidential race is widely seen as benefiting two former governors already in the field with exploratory committees: Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

But if Governors Romney and Pawlenty and Barbour were seen as the top three prospects for the nod to challenge President Obama, the removal of Barbour’s name from that list opens up more room at the top.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – as yet hanging in the wings, not playing the “exploring” game yet – may look more enticing than ever to Republicans who like his charming blend of social conservatism and executive experience. Another name still in the wings with top-tier potential is that of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has said he would make an up-or-down announcement soon, when his state’s legislative session ends.

A handful of other Republicans have already announced: Former Godfather pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer have formed exploratory committees. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson announced a full-fledged presidential campaign last week.

Two others are in “exploring” mode, but have not set up formal exploratory committees: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

The most flamboyant “explorer” of all, billionaire Donald Trump, has said he will announce the date of his presidential announcement – yea or nay – on the season finale of his reality show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” on May 15.

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