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Posted at 1:27 PM ET, 12/21/2010

Haley Barbour: How he hurt himself (and how he can come back)

By Chris Cillizza

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has drawn negative press for comments about race relations. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Haley Barbour's comments on race relations in his hometown during the 1960s -- a relatively small part of a terrific Weekly Standard profile on him -- have created a series of negative national headlines for the Mississippi governor and potential 2012 presidential candidate over the past 24 hours.

"I just don't remember it as being that bad," Barbour said of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Of the Citizens Council, a prominent pro-segregation group, Barbour said: "Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders".

The negative headlines quickly followed.

"Haley's Comet: Could remarks on civil rights damage a campaign before it starts," asked ABC News while The Atlantic went with: "Haley Barbour's Macaca Moment?". Perhaps the most damaging of the headlines came from the liberal Talking Points Memo blog, which blared: "Barbour Spokesman: Mississippi Gov. is not racist".

Any time an aide is on record denying that you are a racist is a bad day in politics. And that goes double for a southern politician who is looking seriously at running for president.

So, how badly has Barbour hurt his presidential chances?

There are two diametrically opposed answers to that question -- both of which have a grain of truth in them.

The first is that he hasn't done any long term damage in the eyes of the voters who will decide the identity of the 2012 nominee.

Why not? Because chances are those voters are paying only the scantest attention to politics at the moment as the holidays rapidly approach.

That means that pronouncements about the episode derailing his chances at the nomination are likely overblown. The idea that something that happens more than a year before a single vote is cast in the nominating contest can be disqualifying seems far-fetched -- particularly given the remarkable political comebacks we have witnessed at the presidential level (Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, anyone?) in recent years.

The second is that this episode has taken the good buzz surrounding Barbour and snuffed it out -- at least for the immediate future.

The talk of Washington over the last month (or so) has been that while Barbour is a strong-accented Southerner with a background in lobbying, he is also the most able political strategist in the party and, in a field as wide open as this one, could win.

Now, the talk will turn to the obvious liabilities -- see above -- that Barbour would bring to the presidential contest and how he will have to find a better way to deal with the race question than he did in the Weekly Standard interview. It will also lead reporters, bloggers and other information-seekers to find other incidents involving Barbour and race, which could be potentially dangerous ground for the governor. (The National Review's Jim Geraghty sussed out this reality in a terrific blog post this morning.)

While all candidates -- including Barbour -- will dismiss the importance of "buzz" among the Washington insider crowd, it does matter. The presidential race is like a glacier -- most of it moves under the surface, away from the eyes of the average voter. Unless Barbour can get out from under the race storyline, he might not ever make it to the point where voters have a chance to assess him or, if he does make it, he could be badly damaged enough that voters will dismiss his candidacy out of hand.

(A sidebar: Barbour's good relationships with the press have always been chalked up as a positive for a potential presidential bid. But, Barbour's ease with the press also creates situations like the one in the Weekly Standard piece -- a breeziness about a serious issue that plays far less well in print than it might in casual conversation. Barbour has to realize that his relations with the press will change fundamentally now that he is a potential presidential candidate and adjust accordingly.)

How can Barbour get beyond the race story quickly and with the least damage done?

Acknowledge the mistake and move on, which is what he sought to do in a statement released this afternoon.

"It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time," said Barbour, adding that the Citizens Council was "totally indefensible, as was segregation".

Barbour has to hope that those words are the last ones he has to speak on the issue for quite some time -- meaning that no other revelations (or past statements on race) crop up to fuel the fire. (Barbour IS helped in this regard by the onrushing holidays, which should serve to push the story out of the news -- barring any new news, of course.

So, Barbour has done what he needed to do in the short term. The longer term is more difficult to predict. It's hard to imagine the race narrative surrounding Barbour ever totally disappearing and so he will need to develop a better -- and more serious/thoughtful -- answer(s) as the campaign wears on.

A broader speech by Barbour explaining how he viewed race during his formative years and how it impacted his life could be in order as well but almost certainly not any time in the foreseeable future.

Make no mistake: this is an unforced error by Barbour on an issue he has to know is one that carries significant danger for him. It's not a campaign-ender by any means but does carry serious warning signs about the difficulties inherent in a presidential bid for someone with his background.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 21, 2010; 1:27 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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