'Fat Redneck' for President

Article excerpt

Byline: Lloyd Grove

Iowa likes Haley Barbour, who's set to announce his 2012 plans. In the huge GOP field, don't bet against him.

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. …