Haley Barbour's 2012 Chances

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in Jackson, Mississippi on August 27, 2009. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

Haley Barbour lugs more than his share of baggage into the Republican presidential arena. In an age that favors optics, he looks every second of his 63 years, is recovering from back surgery, and is overweight to the point where even he jokes about being a "fat redneck." At a time when voters are suspicious of Washington's unholy alliance with Wall Street and big business, he's grown rich as a corporate lobbyist, carrying water for the tobacco and oil industries, among other powerful interests. And although he is, by many measures, a successful politician, he's governor of a tiny state (population: 2.9 million) that ranks last in such indices as median household income, academic achievement, and health care; and first in obesity, infant mortality, teen birthrate, and sexually transmitted diseases; and boasts a troubled and violent racial history that still shapes its identity.

"It's true that Haley's a governor," an uncommitted Republican media consultant tells NEWSWEEK, "but being the governor of Mississippi is like being on the Jamaican bobsled team." But in a wide-open 2012 Republican presidential field overstuffed with nearly 20 candidates, none of whom seems all that threatening to President Obama just yet, Barbour would become the sleeper in the race on day one. He's about to host the 50th-anniversary reunion for the Freedom Riders, which offers an opportunity to tweak the narrative surrounding a Southern Republican and race. Amid trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, he's wrapped up budget negotiations—in stark contrast to the ongoing fiscal wars being played out in other states. He's dropped 20 pounds—despite occasionally griping about the flavorless low-cal dressing on his airline salad—and pledges to drop 20 more. And he's set a self-imposed deadline of the end of April to decide whether to formally seek the White House—meaning it's about 10 minutes to midnight.

A leader of the national Republican establishment who knows Barbour well, and thus didn't want to be quoted by name, says: "It's going to be a challenge for him to overcome the fact that he is a little bit older, a little bit tubbier, very Southern, and has the baggage of being a lobbyist. But I surely would not underestimate him. He has succeeded in everything he's done."

That includes steering the national Republican Party—an organization whose interests Barbour has done more to advance than any other 2012 contender in sight. He's raised a lot of money as chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association—and he's collected a lot of chits.

It's fair to be skeptical, then, but not dismissive, when Barbour claims he can win. "I wouldn't be running if I didn't think so," the molasses-mouthed Barbour tells me from the tarmac after a two-day swing through Iowa, on his third visit to the first caucus state. "Obviously, I haven't made a decision to run," he revises, suddenly remembering to add his pro forma caveat that he won't reveal his plans for a few days yet. "The more correct answer is: I wouldn't be thinking about running."

Barbour seems a little out of step with the ascendant Tea Party wing of the GOP—the one Donald Trump has been catering to of late. And he's not exactly a fellow traveler of the religious right. During a panel of right-wing culture warriors at Iowa Rep. Steve King's Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines, Connie Mackey, who runs the Family Research Council's political-action committee, went out of her way to chide Barbour for stressing bread-and-butter issues over social concerns like abortion and same-sex marriage. "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," Barbour told 600-odd Republican activists at the conference—a cattle call that also drew Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann—"and the main thing is economic growth and job creation for our people."

Mackey retorted: "The main thing is the main thing, but culture cannot be subtracted from that. To say, as some presidential hopefuls have said, that we call a truce on social issues—not at all!" The crowd roared its approval.

Still, even Mackey had to admit that in this unsettled political climate, Barbour's appeal is real. "The Republican field is just really not headed towards anyone," she said. "Haley's chances, quite frankly, are as good as anybody else's at this point."

The day before, in Cedar Rapids, Barbour made a better impression at lunch with the Linn County Eagles. "He's strong on fundamentals," said State Rep. Kraig Paulsen, speaker of the Iowa House. "He knows where he is, and he's not afraid to tell you where he is. In the Iowa presidential process, candidates have to get vetted at a very personal level—they don't get the opportunity to hide from themselves—and I think Haley's someone who will come through that process and be received somewhat well."

Barbour knows his liabilities. After more than four decades in politics—spanning the Nixon campaign, the Reagan White House, the Gingrich revolution, and his two terms as governor of Mississippi—he has earned his reputation as a persevering realist. He can rightly boast of his sure-footed handling of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, and his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association during the last election cycle, when he raised more than $100 million and helped increase the population of GOP governors from 22 to 29. His political mentor Clarke Reed, the godfather of Mississippi's modern Republican Party, calls him "a superb executive."

But Barbour is still smarting from accusations of insensitivity after he was quoted last December in The Weekly Standard putting a rosy gloss on race relations in Yazoo City, where he grew up, and praising the state's Citizens' Councils, an elite segregationist group.

It was a rare and surprising gaffe for the normally on-message governor, who has been working overtime to undo the damage and gets testy when I bring it up. "Sounds like you've already got this story written," he says, before pointing out that he received 20 percent of the black vote for his reelection, a respectable return for a Republican the year before 97 percent of the state's African-Americans went for Barack Obama. "The African-American citizens of Mississippi know that I am not insensitive, that I have worked very hard to improve the quality of life for everybody," he says, adding that he has been a vocal supporter of building a state civil-rights museum while touting the upcoming Freedom Riders event. "We're very proud of the progress that's been made, and we want to show them we regret the way they were treated when they were in Mississippi trying to do something that needed to be done—and that was to end segregation."

In Iowa, where Barbour says he'll devote time, energy, and resources to win the caucuses, Republican voters have just begun to audition the 2012 wannabes. "Form or function—that's the question," says Iowa public-policy consultant Doug Wagner. "I think people elected form last time. It's pretty clear that they're looking for function in their leadership right now." Barbour offers a stark, not altogether winning, contrast with the youthful Obama. "This is your father's Oldsmobile," Wagner says. "He's got to find a way to overcome that and make that generational step."