Haley Barbour’s announcement that he would not seek the Republican nomination to run for president in 2012 was a jolt. The Mississippi governor had made no secret of his interest in the presidency. He’d hired a campaign manager, traveled to early primary states and appealed to party stalwarts for the financial support a national quest for elective office now requires. Still, the governor said Monday that he didn’t have the requisite “absolute fire in the belly” to run. If that’s the case, Barbour’s decision is a wise one personally. What it means to the GOP is more difficult to pinpoint.
It might mean nothing at all. There is no shortage of official and unofficial candidates seeking to carry the Republican standard against President Barack Obama. The number varies almost weekly. With over a year left before the Republican convention, the process of separating serious candidates from the pretenders remains a work in progress. Monday’s announcement is an initial step in that effort.
Barbour’s decision removes a highly visible, well-known and occasionally controversial figure from the race. He’s been a fixture in national politics since the Ronald Reagan years. He was chairman of the Republican National committee and a successful lobbyist. He’s a popular, but term-limited governor. A run for the presidency seemed to be a natural progression. Not so.
Barbour clearly failed to attract a national following. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll in April indicated that less than one percent of likely GOP voters favored his candidacy. Barbour is astute enough to know that number does not foretell an easy candidacy. Perhaps that finding is one reason Barbour said that he’s not ready for a “10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort” to seek the presidency.
In today’s political climate, such an honest admission is rare. In this instance, it is welcome. It opens the way for those who presumably do have the mettle to make an extended run for office to do so. It is a reminder, as well, that seeking the highest office in the United States involves extraordinary personal sacrifice as well as a well-financed organization to support that commitment. That might not be the ideal way to select a president, but that is how it is done these days.
Barbour’s departure leaves a field of possible GOP contenders that includes the widely-known — Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich — as well as those with slightly lower profiles. The latter includes Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who declared his potential candidacy Tuesday. None have inspired the GOP faithful.
A recent survey showed that only half of all Republicans were satisfied by their possible presidential choices and that a third were dissatisfied. Barbour’s departure is unlikely to change those opinions in the short term, but it does alter the campaign dynamic for those who believe they have enough “fire in the belly” to lead Republicans back into the White House in 2012.