Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says he won't decide on a presidential run until next month, but that didn't stop him from road-testing a 2012 campaign message all over Washington this week. As Newt Gingrich
dithered over whether to announce that he might start to raise money to possibly explore a White House bid and Mike Huckabee made strange references to President Barack Obama's "Kenyan" childhood
, Barbour was putting down markers on energy, jobs, health care and foreign policy.
The former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association has had access to some prime forums: NBC's "Meet The Press," testimony before a House committee, a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a mini-scrum with reporters. On the docket for later this week: a Wall Street Journal economic conference
in Santa Barbara, Calif. (he's the only presidential prospect on the program) and the closed-to-the-press Club for Growth conference
in Palm Beach, Fla. (along with Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty).
Not bad for seven days, and that doesn't include private meetings and a fundraiser Wednesday night for Haley's PAC
, Barbour's leadership committee, which finances his travels and help for other candidates. There hasn't been a whole lot of competition for the capital spotlight. Over the same period, for instance, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has held private meetings in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida; he'll speak to Carroll County Republicans in New Hampshire at a public event Saturday.
Romney is relatively well known after his 2008 bid, while Barbour is unfamiliar to most voters. He fell flat at the Conservative Political Action Committee gathering earlier this month with remarks that alternated between generic and geeky. But he seemed more in his element these past few days, perhaps because of his history as a lobbyist and top-tier political player, as he circulated around town previewing some 2012 talking points. They fell into several categories:
Several times Barbour passed on chances to critique Obama on the Middle East and quoted Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's famous 1945 comment that "politics stops at the water's edge
Edgy Haley, primary phase:
At a hearing on health care, Barbour argued that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed last year would inflate premiums in his state and cause fewer businesses to offer health coverage. Then he discussed the Massachusetts universal coverage plan that Romney signed and that Obama often lauds as the model for the national law. "When Sen. Kennedy, and Gov. Romney, and then Gov. Patrick – if that's what Massachusetts wants, we're happy for 'em. We don't want that. That's not good for us," Barbour said. How and why did those three names wind up in that sentence? Whatever. Barbour successfully sandwiched Romney between two leading liberal lights, while driving home the idea that Mississippi is no Massachusetts.
Edgy Haley, general election phase:
One theme of Haleyweek, and likely a Barbour campaign, is a stiff challenge to Obama's energy policy. Barbour berated Obama for failing to push hard enough for "American energy" – specifically oil drilling and coal mining – and said his policies have been "designed to drive up the cost of energy in the name of reducing pollution, in the name of making very expensive alternative fuels more economically competitive."
Barbour also cited a 2008 comment by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, then head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, that U.S. gas prices should rise to European levels in order to force fuel efficiency. He said $4-a-gallon gas in 2008 "brought my state to its knees" and "we don't need that where I am." Chu made the remark to the Wall Street Journal. Barbour did not mention that the same article quoted Obama as disagreeing
with Chu, or that Chu backed off the comment
The Democratic Party, operating on the premise that declared candidates or not, the 2012 campaign is under way, countered that Obama has made "historic investments in clean energy" to help lower costs and expand energy choices. The party also said gas prices are rising now because of unrest in the Middle East.
At the House health hearing, Barbour said some politicians "act like y'all love our constituents more than we do," but "believe it or not, we love our constituents as much as y'all do. And we want to do right for 'em but we want to do what we can afford."
At the Chamber of Commerce, Barbour talked about how he had sunk money into improving the quality of the workforce, to keep companies competitive and foremost "to help our working people. They deserve that as much as they deserve a high school diploma."
Disarming Haley, Obamacare:
In an exchange with Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, Barbour addressed the GOP practice of pejoratively referring to the new health law -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- as "Obamacare": "First let me say I don't mean any offense, but P-Paca doesn't come out too good in my accent for the name of this law. P-P-A-C-A. So I didn't mean any offense by referring to it as Obamacare, it's just easier for me to say."
Green was very congenially not buying it. "I understand. I know it works well on Fox with my Republican colleagues," he said. He advised Barbour to simply call the law "health reform" and added, in his own Texas drawl, "I don't have any problem with your accent from where I come from."
Disarming Haley, the diet:
The heavy-set governor joked last year that if he started losing weight, it would mean he had cancer or was running for president. He is rapidly transforming himself into a thinner person. Asked directly Wednesday whether he will run in 2012, he replied, "I have lost a little weight and I certainly needed to. Hopefully I can lose some more." That sure sounds like a yes.
Conservative Haley, Walker edition:
In comments sure to fire up the types of people who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses, Barbour strongly defended a governor he helped elect last year -- Scott Walker of Wisconsin. He said there's no "constitutional right to collective bargaining," and half the states, as well as the federal government, have limits or bans on it.
"So do I think he's overreached?" he asked a small gaggle of reporters after the chamber speech. "No. I think he is being realistic. Having a one-year agreement about wages and benefits doesn't really help with the problem" of a $3.6 billion budget deficit.
Conservative Haley, social issues edition:
Barbour charged repeatedly in his chamber speech that Obama has failed to focus on "the main thing" – that is, jobs and the economy. He later denied that Republicans were getting diverted from "the main thing" and into divisive fights over limiting abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood.
"I think we can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time," Barbour said. True, it was not entirely consistent with his "main thing" doctrine. But another "main thing" at this point is soothing social conservatives, who are key to a third "main thing" -- winning the Republican nomination.
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