Haley Barbour is the GOP's leading candidate in 2012—for vice president.
And the list goes on. In the late 1990s, he raised millions of dollars for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, later disgraced. He represented Mexico in the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which wouldn't go over so well with the GOP base. While at the RNC, he funneled $2.1 million to the group through dubious channels from a Hong Kong tycoon. These are things that, when brought up by the opposition repeatedly over a year and a half, start to weigh a presidential candidate down. In a running mate, they're more forgivable.
Now, there are few hard-and-fast criteria for what vice presidents should look like. Conventional wisdom holds that their desirable qualities are almost entirely relative, determined by weaknesses of the nominee, balancing traits like age, gender, and geography. On that score, you can count on Barbour to pull in the "bubba vote": Southerners dubious about Obama's spending, as well as other stuff about Obama. Whoever the nominee is, Barbour's comfort on-camera plus a real ability to connect with voters makes him an excellent presidential emissary—no Palin-esque disasters here—who could easily handle Joe Biden in a debate.
But wait: There's more! As historian Allan Lichtman notes, the best running mate is also the ablest leader for the party, to carry the banner when the president's term is up. By that metric, Ronald Reagan picked well with a nominal Southerner and former RNC chair, George H.W. Bush, who in turn helped tank his own re-election chances by sticking with the green and bumbling Dan Quayle. Barbour comes out well on this score. His leadership after Hurricane Katrina impressed Governing magazine enough to name him public official of the year in 2006, and he was re-elected by a healthy 58 percent in 2007. A Presbyterian deacon and Sunday school teacher, Barbour has genuine social-conservative credentials, but he has argued that the party shouldn't rip itself apart over issues like abortion and gay marriage. Presiding over the Senate is the vice president's only formal duty; if his ability to corral politicos into a simple and consistent message counts for anything, he'd at least discharge that responsibility with ease. "Plus, he is extraordinarily smart on policy issues," says Republican rainmaker Fred Malek. Put him in charge of whatever.
And then there's perhaps the most important criterion: money. What makes Barbour an improbable presidential candidate—a history of raising millions of dollars for clients and candidates—also makes him a huge asset to the presidential ticket, along with an excellent sense of where to spend it. He helped retake the House in 1994 by focusing the party on its ground game in the states. Could he do so again from the sidelines? Sure, but there's no motivation like having your own name on the ballot (and he's already got a constituency!).
Finally there's the intangibles, as they call them on ESPN. As the party's vice presidential candidate, Barbour could travel the country raising money, attending picnics, and easing tensions in the fractious GOP. And he would also make the choice for the top of the ticket a lot easier. Barbour would need someone Northern to run under, preferably one with business credentials—Mitt Romney isn't looking too bad lately. Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty, not yet scarred by scandal, could be the fresh face to Barbour's grizzled experience.
Whoever the choice is, with Haley Barbour as his (or her?) running mate, the Republican presidential candidate will have one less thing to worry about.
Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.
Photograph of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour by David McNew/Getty Images.