Politics & Policy

What Barbour’s Decision Means

The remaining contenders are breathing a sigh of relief — and eyeing his staff.

Just like that, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour is out of the 2012 presidential sweepstakes.

Barbour hadn’t made much of an impression in the polls, clocking in at around 1 percent, but the former Republican National Committee chairman had an outsize influence in the world of GOP insiders. Today, other candidates have one less competitor to worry about and a host of liberated political professionals looking for somewhere to land.

“There are a lot of other potential nominees who are breathing a big sigh of relief today,” says Ed Gillespie, another former RNC chairman and a longtime friend of the Mississippi governor. “He would have been very formidable contender. He had locked up a lot of talent in the early states.” The 2012 field, Gillespie notes, is now more “muddied and unformed” with Barbour’s absence.

Vin Weber, a former top strategist for Mitt Romney and current adviser to Tim Pawlenty, says Barbour’s exit “opens up a huge field of donors, activists, and operatives to the other candidates. Haley had a broad reservoir of good will among those people.”

Barbour’s talented political staff will likely be coveted by numerous campaigns, starting with high-profile strategist Mike Dennehy, who spearheaded Sen. John McCain’s New Hampshire victories in 2000 and 2008. “This makes Dennehy, the two-time defending champion from McCain world, a free agent,” observes James Pindell, the political director for WMUR-TV in Manchester. Pindell expects fledgling candidates with McCain connections, such as former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, or perhaps even Donald Trump, who is visiting the Granite State later this week, to make a play for his services.

But Weber guesses that talent is probably not as available to Mitt Romney. “Since Romney is the frontrunner, people who have not already decided to be with Romney are less likely to go with Romney,” Weber says.

Sources tell NRO that the reaction at Barbour headquarters this afternoon was “shock,” that the governor kept the decision to himself until minutes before he released the statement. It is believed that only Henry Barbour, the governor’s nephew and senior political adviser, and a cluster of top aides were aware of the decision before today.

Indeed, the news caught even close Barbour allies off guard. “I’m both surprised and disappointed,” says Jim Nicholson, who worked with Barbour at the RNC then succeeded him as chairman. “I actually thought that he would run. The last time that I spoke with him, I got the impression that he was going to run.”

“He would have brought a lot to the primary debate,” Nicholson says. “He is an amicable conservative who is really strong on policy. He knows how to have a vigorous debate without offending other camps, keeping the focus on the issues. Haley is one smart cookie. He doesn’t look like a policy wonk, but he is one. This is a loss for our party.”

In his brief time considering a run, Barbour generated controversy earlier this year when he openly questioned the extent of U.S. involvement in foreign wars, wondering aloud whether President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan was smart policy.

By bowing out, Barbour leaves the field devoid of an anti-interventionist. Still, his brief dip into those waters drew notice from fellow potential candidates. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is mulling a bid, tells NRO that Barbour was “right to question nation-building as a foreign policy,” and was a respected contender. “We should advance American interests, not engage in international nanny-ism,” Bolton says.

So why did Barbour pull up short? Gillespie tells NRO that he is not reading into the official statement. “One of the things about Haley is, you can take his comments at face value,” he says. “It’s all right there in the statement. As he looked at the extent of the personal commitment it would require over the course of the next decade, he said, ‘You know, I am not sure if I can guarantee that fire in the belly.’ He has been around long enough to know that if you can’t guarantee that fire in the belly, you ought not to run, that it would not be fair to your party or to your supporters.”

Likewise, Brian Perry, a former Barbour spokesman and Mississippi Republican strategist, says that he’s taking Barbour “at his word that he doesn’t want to give up [the] ten years” involved in running for president and serving two terms. “It’s a large sacrifice for anybody to ask of anyone and their family, and I think that he just does not have the desire to do that,” says Perry.

It’s likely that family considerations played some role in Barbour’s decision: His wife, Marsha Barbour, told Mississippi TV station WLOX-TV last month that she considered a presidential run “a huge sacrifice for a family to make,” and said the prospect of a campaign “horrifies” her.

Of course, Barbour was likely fully aware of the political freight he carried as a former lobbyist and Southern governor potentially running against the nation’s first African-American president. A few months ago, he had an appearance on Fox News Sunday that could only be described as brutal, as Chris Wallace probed all his vulnerabilities. Barbour also had the challenge of representing the establishment at a time of anti-establishment ferment. Asked about his low standing in the polls on one show, he joked that he didn’t know he had so many members of his family.

All of that may have contributed to what was ultimately a gut check. Says one source familiar with Team Barbour, “He didn’t want to be the guy who commits his family to a political battle in which his heart is not really invested.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Rich Lowry, Katrina Trinko, and Daniel Foster contributed to this piece.