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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 02/16/2011

Does Haley Barbour need to give a 'race speech'?

By Rachel Weiner

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour once again has found himself at the center of a racially-charged controversy with his refusal to denounce a proposal in the state for license plates honoring Confederate General -- and early Ku Klux Klan leader -- Nathan Bedford Forrest.

"I don't go around denouncing people," Barbour said Tuesday. "That's not going to happen. I don't even denounce the news media."

It's his second race-related stumble in the past few months. Late last year, Barbour found himself in the unwelcome glare of the national media when he was quoted in a Weekly Standard profile saying the civil rights era in Mississippi was not "that bad".

"Because Haley Barbour has one foot in the new south and one foot in the old south, it means he occasionally sticks a foot in his mouth," said Mark McKinnon, a strategist who has worked with George W. Bush and John McCain. "He has a reflex to try and understand and please both sides, but on racially-charged issues, there's only one way to go if you want to be President. And that's to make a clean break from the past."

Jennifer Rubin, the Post's conservative-minded blogger, argued today that Republicans should give up on Barbour in the wake of the most recent comments.

"No candidate can successfully run for president if he doesn't understand you should rebuke efforts to honor the man most identified with the KKK," wrote Rubin.

Not all conservatives agree, however.

"Haley is not a racist," said longtime GOP strategist Mary Matalin. "His responses don't typically reflect the [Main Stream Media]/Beltway template, nor should he begin doing so now, but that doesn't make him guilty of the insinuated charges." Matalin added that when confronted with questions about race, Barbour should simply point to his record as governor.

Barbour has been doing that.

* On an appearance on Fox News Channel on Sunday, Barbour said: "We have more African-American elected officials in Mississippi than anywhere in the country. I've had outstanding African-American members of my administration."

* In his speech on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Convention, the governor made an allusion to civil rights, invoking the first Republican president: "Lincoln saved our country -- one nation, indivisible -- and he established our party as the party of freedom."

* In his "State of the State" last month, Barbour advocated for the construction of a civil rights museum in Jackson. "This is the year to get this museum going," Barbour said. "This is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War."

The question for Barbour and his advisers is whether -- given the amount of attention the issue of race has already drawn in his not-yet-announced presidential campaign -- he needs to give a broader speech on race that seeks to address the questions once and for all.

(Sidebar: Barbour's struggles on race highlight the difficulty of serving in elected office while running for president -- or preparing to run for president. As governor, you have to respond to every issue that comes up in the state; there is no picking and choosing of favorable issues on which to sound off.)

It's a strategy that President Obama adopted during his 2008 presidential campaign when his connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright became a national news story. The speech Obama gave in response was widely regarded as one of the best of his campaign and a turning point that put all of the Wright chatter to rest.

If Barbour was interested in giving such a speech, there is a planned celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides this May in Mississippi. (At a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in the state capital last month, Barbour declared that Freedom Riders "will find Mississippi an enormously changed state as to race relations.")

The downside of such a speech for Barbour is that it could -- and likely would -- lead to a re-hashing of his past pronouncements and actions on race. For voters just being introduced to Barbour as a potential presidential candidate, that sort of conversation could stunt his political growth.

What do you think? Should Haley Barbour give a "race speech"? Vote below.

By Rachel Weiner  | February 16, 2011; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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