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Katrina Narrows Barbour’s Options — But Only for Now

Four years ago, a national tragedy transformed a controversial mayor, New York’s Rudy Giuliani (R), into a national celebrity. It also transformed a president with sinking poll ratings, George W. Bush, into a symbol of national unity (at least for a year).

Hurricane Katrina has had a very different effect on at least one politician. [IMGCAP(1)]

For the past couple of months, friends of Gov. Haley Barbour had been kicking around the idea of a presidential bid by the Mississippi Republican, but the storm has swept away that talk, along with people’s homes and possessions.

“Running for president is not an option in his mind. The only thing on his mind now is rebuilding Mississippi,” said Republican consultant Ed Goeas, who polled for Barbour’s 2003 gubernatorial race and was among those considering what a Barbour White House bid might look like.

To some, talk about a Barbour presidential bid always bordered on the absurd. I’ll admit that when I first heard his name mentioned as a possible 2008 hopeful, I dismissed it because of his home state and lobbying résumé.

Although, as one of only 50 sitting governors, he deserved consideration. And if over the past three decades governors from Georgia and Arkansas could occupy the Oval Office, why not someone from Mississippi?

But the hurricane has ended talk about a Barbour presidential run. Yet, it did provide him with an opportunity to show his strengths. Unlike Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) or Bush, both of whom received generally mediocre to poor reviews for their performances, Barbour has drawn raves.

“I have been a frequent critic of Barbour’s policies, but not now,” wrote Clarion-Ledger Editorial Director David Hampton in the Jackson, Miss., newspaper shortly after disaster struck. “Mississippi’s governor is doing an excellent job in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While federal officials have appeared like deer in the headlights, unsure and defensive, Barbour has shown the state effort is working as well as it can.”

Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter, also not known for being a Republican shill, wrote last week that Barbour “has exuded more calm, more competence and more command over the absolute bedlam of Hurricane Katrina than other officials.”

Then, Salter really heaped praise on the governor.

“What the public hasn’t seen is Barbour at work managing the disaster between press conferences. For this consummate dealmaker schooled in the Byzantine political arts of moving Congress to act and to spend, it is this work that finds the governor most effective in his element.

“Wheeling. Dealing. Selling. Cajoling. Shouting. Laughing. Crying. Working. Getting.

“And in the midst of it all, Barbour has somehow managed to hold onto his sense of humor and his humanity.”

Barbour, 57, knows it will take years to clean up the mess left by Katrina and rebuild portions of his state — well into his second term if he runs for re-election in 2007 and voters decide to re-hire him. That would be a challenge the native of Yazoo City (“the gateway to the Mississippi Delta”) might not be able to resist.

But, looking at the hurricane another way, Katrina has made the governor a star in his state, and it may well have enhanced Barbour’s appeal nationally, giving him the kind of credentials that a future presidential candidate would love to have.

The governor may have put all thoughts of a 2008 presidential bid out of his mind for now, but that doesn’t mean that sometime in the future, maybe late next year or early in 2007, Barbour might not reconsider his political options.

It’s not as if the GOP field is so intimidating that Barbour couldn’t compete, even with the heavy baggage of his years of lobbying.

GOP frontrunners Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Giuliani lead the pack because of their name recognition and celebrity status. Others in the field have assets and liabilities, and no one is a clear favorite for the nomination.

But Barbour may have other options, as well.

Savvy political observers in Mississippi and the nation’s capital are now whispering that they do not expect Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to seek re-election next year.

Lott has not jumped at friends’ offers to hold fundraisers for his re-election, and the Senator’s own comments in this newspaper Thursday suggest he may well retire to the private sector.

While insiders agree that Lott wants to appoint Rep. Chip Pickering (R) to fill his Senate seat, some Mississippi observers insist that Barbour, who unsuccessfully challenged then-Sen. John Stennis (D) 23 years ago, has always dreamed of being a United States Senator.

Barbour’s Washington background (which includes his Republican National Committee chairmanship) and the glowing reviews of his performance after Katrina make him a potentially strong Senate candidate. True, timing might be a considerable problem for him, since critics would complain that in running for the Senate he would be turning his back on a job that he hadn’t finished. But Barbour could counter that, as a Senator, he could do more to help the state than he could as governor.

Some Barbour allies dismiss the Senate scenario, saying that he loves his current job. But everyone seems to acknowledge that the governor still has political options, and Katrina has enhanced his standing in the state and, potentially, nationally.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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