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'08 Watch: Barbour's Exit Ratchets Up Pressure on Frist

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) made clear earlier this week that he will not seek the presidency in 2008, a decision that a has a number of interesting short- and long-term ramifications.

Haley Barbour
Let the courting of Haley begin ... a Barbour endorsement could leapfrog a candidate to the front of the 2008 GOP nomination field. (Getty Images)

While Barbour was never considered a likely presidential candidate, his performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his state's gulf coast, had a number of national strategists chattering about him as a dark horse 2008 candidate. That left the other politicians considering the race spending considerable time trying to figure out how the Mississippi governor fit into the presidential picture.

So while Barbour barely registered in national surveys, his departure has a real impact on the early jockeying for the nomination.

In the near term, Barbour's definitive no-go would seem to help Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist (R), who is eyeing next month's straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis as a chance to reestablish himself as a top-tier Republican candidate for 2008. Reports in Hotline's On Call blog had Barbour partisans gearing up for an upset win -- what would have been a huge embarrassment for Frist in his home state.

The SRLC will be the first cattle call of the 2008 GOP race, with The Hotline (an essential read in political circles) sponsoring a straw poll. Frist will attend, and Sens. George Allen (Va.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Govs. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) are expected to be there as well.

Barbour still plans to address the SRLC but does not want his name included on the straw poll, according to a source close to the governor. In fact, the timing of Barbour's announcement was the result of a desire not to have his speech at the SRLC seen through the 2008 lens, the source said.

Frist -- now more than ever -- needs a convincing win in the SRLC straw poll to make his mark. The Frist political operation is well aware of the necessity of victory and is working to ensure that his grassroots supporters turn out.

The long-term effects of Barbour's departure from the field are harder to predict. The Fix checked in with a handful of GOP operatives. The consensus was that the longer-term impact is two-fold in nature -- geographic and institutional.

In terms of geography, the strategists listed George Allen and Mike Huckabee as the biggest beneficiaries. Allen's good-old-boy appeal tracked closely with that of Barbour's. As for Huckabee, several operatives said he remained a longshot for the nomination -- but his chances were nil with Barbour in the mix. One GOP operative said Barbour's departure opens a slot for a southern governor to make some news -- and Huckabee fits that bill.

The other impact of Barbour's departure is within the innermost sanctum of the party -- the Republican National Committee. A former RNC Chairman, Barbour enjoys tremendous loyalty among the RNC's committee members -- an influential group who may have lined up early for Barbour had he decided to run for president.

Two men -- Frist and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- are likely to make the biggest inroads with this group without Barbour in the field. Frist has spent considerable time courting these insiders during his days as the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2002 cycle. McCain, who ran as the outsider candidate during the 2000 presidential race, has considerably more institutional support this time around. Without a so-called "establishment" candidate emerging to challenge his frontrunner status, McCain has a chance to win over many RNC insiders.

Lastly, Barbour's deep ties to the party's financial backers makes his support (overt or otherwise) a key prize in the 2008 positioning. The phone in the Mississippi governor's mansion must be ringing off the hook this week...

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 9, 2006; 8:48 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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