Among the totems in Haley Barbour's office in Jackson, Miss., is a cheeky sign that reads, "Power corrupts but absolute power is kinda cool."
In this season of broad conservative ascent, Barbour is approaching absolute power. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he is masterminding the capture or retention of as many as 28 governorships for his party in November. His fundraising expected to top $90 million by Election Day has enabled him to pour millions of dollars into voter-turnout efforts that will help all kinds of Republicans further down the ballot and generate chits from grateful recipients. And his recent decision to drop $2 million into Florida's up-for-grabs gubernatorial contest is a reminder of just how much clout one man can wield in a political realm widely regarded as atomized.
It would normally be a career-capping moment for a 62-year-old pol who has already chaired the Republican Party and won two terms as governor of Mississippi. But the man universally called Haley is now thinking of seeking the GOP nomination for President, and partly because the rest of the field is so shaky, he actually has a chance to scoop that up too. Barbour has made it clear to intimates that while he respects his potential White House rivals, he isn't intimidated by any of them.
Barbour hasn't made up his mind yet, but he certainly acts as if he is running. He is trying to turn his long record as a Washington lobbyist into an asset. He is telling his supporters to keep their powder dry. He just added a trip to New Hampshire to his schedule. And he recently acquiesced to a grilling by a roomful of Washington reporters after months of lying low.
As Barbour sees it, Barack Obama's fiscal policies are a flop with voters. And that, more than anything else, has opened the door to a huge year for his party. "I think the American people understand," Barbour explains, "we need to have more focus on jobs and the economy instead of 15 months on a so-called health-reform program that actually increases the cost of health care."
Barbour is one of the chief builders and beneficiaries of the insider Beltway power structure that helped spawn the Tea Party. That puts him at odds with the most energized segment of the GOP, led by potential 2012 rivals Sarah Palin and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. Which means a Barbour candidacy would depend, at some point, on Republicans' deciding that a traditional choice would present their party with the best chance of defeating Obama in a general-election contest. Barbour's fingertip feel for politics at any moment gives him, more than any of the other possible contenders, the capacity to serve as a bridge between the party's traditional and renegade wings whether as candidate or consigliere. At a key meeting of Southern GOP activists in April, where Tea Party sentiment ran deep, Barbour issued a warning about the need for unity in a party that has widening fault lines. "Barack Obama has worn out three sets of knee pads, down on his knees praying that the conservative vote is split in 2010," Barbour told the crowd. "We can't let that happen."
If Barbour jumps into the White House race, money will be his entry ticket. The former Washington lobbyist is an unparalleled fundraiser; some GOP financial wizards believe he could bring in upwards of $75 million in 2011, a figure that only Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Palin could possibly match. His years of running the party (both in fact and de facto) have left him with a Rolodex of rainmakers and foot soldiers that reaches into all 50 states. And he has recently reminded those who are paying attention that he can slip a barb into his homey cadence. "This is a President that we know less about than any other President in history," Barbour told reporters this month. "But I have no idea why. I accept just totally at face value that he is a Christian. He said so throughout his time he has been in public life. That's good enough for me." As Henry Barbour, Mississippi's Republican national committeeman, says about his uncle, "For a big guy, he's mighty nimble."