Why Haley Barbour is the GOP's leading candidate in 2012—for vice president.

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Aug. 5 2009 5:37 PM

Aim Low

Haley Barbour is the GOP's leading candidate in 2012—for vice president.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour 

When Gov. Mark Sanford's political future imploded in June, he let down an important constituency. Never mind the people of South Carolina: The Republican Governors Association, of which Sanford was chairman, had to scramble—and within an hour it had announced that Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and pol-about-town, would take Sanford's place. Barbour, as so often for the Republican Party, was pleased to serve.

Now speculation has already begun over whether Barbour will run for president in 2012. (It's hard to tell whether these reports stem from pundits desperate for a column or Republicans desperate for leader.) Regardless of whether this speculation is accurate—and Barbour isn't exactly batting it down—it's not quite right. The place for Barbour on the GOP's 2012 ticket is the bottom, not the top.

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Barbour is the GOP's Mr. Fix-It. Sixteen years ago, when the party was in a similar position—booted out of the White House, out of money, and ideologically incoherent—he was elected to run the Republican National Committee, promising strong executive leadership to rebuild the party. In his first two years, he bailed out the nearly bankrupt National Republican Campaign Committee while cajoling, strategizing, fundraising, and bullying fractious Republicans back into the majority. Newt Gingrich was the bullhorn of the 1994 Republican revolution, but Barbour was the guy who paid for the bullhorn.

The 61-year-old Barbour has had many incarnations: director of the Mississippi census at the age of 22, lawyer in the family law practice, failed Senate candidate, Reagan White House official. Now, after a successful lobbying stint at the BGR Group—started as Barbour, Griffith, and Rogers—and with a respected record as governor, Barbour is back on the Hill. He testifies on cap-and-trade legislation and chats about Russia with Sean Hannity. He rides the airwaves slamming the Obama administration's spending habits, casting them exactly as he did the Clinton economic package in 1993—Obama, like Clinton, could "charm the skin off a snake." 

All of which prompts conservatives to cry, Haley's comet is streaking! He's a strong voice in a leaderless party, and as leading 2012 contenders self-destruct, flirt with fringe theories, and attack one another, there sits Mr. Fix-It, now a successful elected executive, conveniently term-limited in 2011. Even opponents are impressed, or at least they say they are. "He's an unusual combination of someone who's really good on policy, really good on politics, and really good on TV," says Democratic lobbyist Anthony Podesta. "And everybody likes him."

Here's the problem. Over three decades in politics, Barbour may have accumulated too much baggage to withstand the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. Besides, he is way too good a vice presidential candidate to waste at the top of the ticket.

The baggage can be described by two simple words on a piece of campaign literature: tobacco lobbyist. (This story does that one better and refers to him as "a millionaire tobacco lobbyist.") In 1997, Barbour helped five companies negotiate their $368.5 billion settlement with the state attorneys general—and slipped a $50 billion tax credit into a comprehensive tobacco bill, which was later rescinded when legislators found out.

If anyone in American politics could talk his way out of this, it's Barbour: He was just fighting for the hard-working American tobacco farmer, keeping the government from meddling in American business, etc. But it's unlikely. The public now rates cigarette companies down with the financial services industry as the two most-hated demons of corporate America.