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Watch Out for Haley Barbour

A commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Drudge Report headline declaring that "Murdoch Gives $1 Million to Haley Barbour" is not technically accurate. In fact, News Corporation (full disclosure: I'm a contributor to Fox News) gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, of which Barbour is the chair. But the headline caught my attention because if there's one Republican I'm worried about going into what is sure to be a tough re-election campaign in 2012, it is Haley Barbour.

I know Barbour from his Washington days -- when he did politics in the Reagan White House, helped George Bush Sr. beat my candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, and served as chair of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997. In terms of political skills, Barbour is unquestionably as good as anyone in the game. During his tenure as RNC chair, his party won back both the House and the Senate for the first time in decades. In 1991, Barbour set up shop as a lawyer-lobbyist, the kind who can, and did, make millions. He was set for life.

But then he did something most people like him, Democrat or Republican, never do. He went home to Mississippi and ran for governor.

I remember, many years ago, when legendary Texas politico Jim Hightower came by the "Kennedy for President" headquarters and told many of us who were working on that campaign that when it was over (sooner than we'd planned), we should all go home and run ourselves. It's one thing to whisper in a candidate's ear, he said, but if you really want to make change happen, run yourself.

It's great advice that few in Washington follow. Go home and leave all that power (or proximity) behind? Besides, no matter what anyone says, running for office is just plain tougher than running a campaign. You're the one on the line. You're the one doing the asking -- and getting rejected. I went home to Massachusetts the next year and traveled around the state with Dukakis, who was then running for governor, and came to the conclusion that I would be a terrible fundraiser. I could ask for money for other people, but I just couldn't imagine asking for myself.

Barbour knows how to ask. He knows the game of presidential politics. But he knows more than that. As governor of Mississippi, he has won high marks not only from Republicans, but also from such Democrats as Mike Espy, the African-American former Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, who endorsed Barbour for re-election. The Gulf disaster and the Republican Governors Association both provide Barbour with very attractive opportunities to play on the national stage from his berth in Mississippi.

A candidate who combines the experience of an elected official with the expertise of having participated in high-level politics is a dangerous prospect. Bill Clinton had both those talents when he ran in 1992. Perhaps not coincidentally, he served as the chair of the National Governors Association in the period leading up to the 1992 primaries, and that was an important part of his base.

Barbour has his liabilities, to be sure. In his lobbying work, he was a prime advocate for the tobacco industry, which will be a certain source of financial support and political criticism. His tenure as a lobbyist will be put under the microscope.

But among the presidential aspirants on the Republican side, Barbour brings a unique blend of insider experience and outside appeal, of campaign know-how and trial-by-fire credentials in governing. If I had to pick a Republican I wouldn't want to run against, it would be him.

Murdoch may not have actually given Barbour $1 million, but the contribution from News Corp. reflects a very smart company's trust in him. Which makes me, as a Democrat, nervous indeed.


See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.  

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