DES MOINES, Iowa -- Haley Barbour, Republican governor of Mississippi -- who is not, repeat not, yet running for president -- is nonetheless standing in a hallway in Iowa's ornate State Capitol enduring a series of questions about Donald Trump.
Not once, but five times, five different ways, by a local television cameraman who clearly wants Mr. Barbour to say something mean-spirited about the flamboyant New York real estate developer. Mr. Trump is considering a presidential bid but hasn't yet visited Iowa, which is crawling with potential GOP challengers to President Barack Obama a little less than a year before the all-important Iowa caucuses.
"Mean-spirited" isn't a word that even his political opponents use to describe the 63-year-old Mr. Barbour, and after the cameraman's fifth try ("Mr. Trump sent someone on a large private jet to Iowa to check out the state, and didn't come himself, what do you think of that?") yields a fifth anodyne answer ("Anyone running for president is entitled to run his campaign the way he sees fit," or some tame variation thereof), he gives up and switches off the light. He isn't getting the zinger of the type Mr. Barbour perfected as chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1990s (such as his two-line press release congratulating Bill Clinton for a presidential first: "He's the first president to be deposed on Sunday, then turn around and offer a crime package on Monday.")
"Well, I guess you're throwing in the towel, huh?" Mr. Barbour says mildly. There are laughs all around, but the former K Street lobbyist is seriously on message these days after a series of careless remarks about Mississippi's racial history that surprised those who consider him one a great political strategist, a man revered in the GOP for his prodigious fundraising skills, his business acumen and his focus.
Indeed, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," he told an audience of business executives in Chicago Monday, using a favorite folksy aphorism to describe his campaign's theme -- Mr. Obama's handling of the economy.
It's a good line, delivered in a rich, viscous Mississippi delta drawl, and it got a laugh on the 80th floor of Chicago's Mid-America Club, just as it would in a small hotel ballroom in Davenport, Iowa on Wednesday evening, as Mr. Barbour ended his two day (non)campaign swing through the state. No announcements of a candidacy on this trip -- he says he'll decide for sure next month.
Recently, though, the main thing got sidetracked by the kinds of minor things that always seem to gum up the gears in presidential (non)campaigns. There was an email last week by Mr. Barbour's son Sterling in which he declared he didn't want his father to run (but believed he'd win if he did); and the firing of a Barbour aide who joked about Japan's earthquake victims in some leaked e-mails.
But then there was this slightly bigger thing.
In a December interview, Mr. Barbour told a reporter he didn't remember the Civil Rights era in Yazoo City during his youth "as being that bad," going on to credit the all-white citizens' councils, composed of local town leaders, for keeping the Ku Klux Klan out of town.
His remark was fiercely criticized by black leaders and historians, since those councils, worried about white mob violence hurting businesses, resorted to economic intimidation of blacks instead.
Mr. Barbour later issued a statement calling the councils "totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time."
Then, last month, Mr. Barbour declined to denounce a Mississippi bill for a state-issued license plate honoring Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, noting "I don't go around denouncing people. That's not going to happen. I don't even denounce the news media." He later said that he wouldn't sign the bill if it passed his desk.
"Haley's a super friendly guy who doesn't want conflict, said Clarke Reed, a Greenville, Miss., lawyer. "He knew that [bill] never was going to pass in the Legislature." Mr. Reed is Mr. Barbour's old mentor and is widely considered the architect of the modern-day Republican party in the South.
Still, those comments got in the way of the main thing by raising the complicated issue that was front-and-center in the 2008 presidential election.
Then, the question was whether voters would elect a black man as president. This time, a potential Barbour candidacy raises the question in reverse: can a white Mississippi governor who came of age during the Civil Rights era and who is prone to downplaying racial tensions be a credible Republican challenger to Mr. Obama?
Add to that a second question: At a time when the GOP is longing for an outsider who can excite not just its conservative base but wavering independents and even some disillusioned Democrats, can the consummate insider beat the Democratic incumbent in the White House?
Mr. Barbour's longtime friend and colleague, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, thinks both hurdles are surmountable.
"Anybody from Mississippi is going to have difficulty because we're judged on a different standard, because we have a complicated history," said Sen. Cochran, adding that any negatives about Mr. Barbour's career as a lobbyist will be overcome by "Haley's intellect, good humor, personality and seriousness of purpose."
Sure, he's southern, but it's of the "aw-shucks" variety, Sen. Cochran said, "you know, where he rolls up his blue jeans and goes wading in the creek trying to catch a catfish on a pole." Mr. Barbour, he added, is "skilled at waging political warfare. But he's not warlike."
During his 40-year-journey to this moment in Iowa, Mr. Barbour skillfully hit all the big Republican stations of the cross: political director in Ronald Reagan's White House; chairman of the national party in the 1990s, where he engineered the first Republican takeover of the U.S. House in 40 years; two-term governor of Mississippi, where he handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina more deftly than his counterpart in Louisiana; and more recently, as head of the Republican Governor's Association, Mr. Barbour spent $102 million in the 2010 statehouse races in which the GOP won nine out of 10 swing states, eight of them governed by Democrats.
But president? As of mid-March, no one has formally announced a candidacy -- not Mr. Barbour, nor Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum or Mr. Trump.
It's the most wide-open Republican nomination contest in years. In every other GOP race since 1952, a Gallup pollster recently noted, there was a clear front runner by this point. The top would-be candidates -- Mr. Huckabee, Ms. Palin and Mr. Romney -- were still polling in the teens in a Feb. 23 Gallup poll, with Mr. Barbour not even in the double digits.
"Never heard of him," said Mary Smith, a 58-year-old school bus driver who was eating breakfast at Riley's in Cedar Rapids early Tuesday morning before going to work. Ms. Smith, an evangelical Christian, calls herself an independent voter who doesn't blame the president for the country's poor economy. "But I'd want someone who's socially conservative next time around," she said.
As an adherent of the "big tent" philosophy, Mr. Barbour has campaigned for GOP candidates of every stripe around the country, but his own social conservative bona fides are unquestioned. "Mississippi is ranked the safest place in America for an unborn child," he tells anyone who asks.
"He has as good a shot as anyone in Iowa. He's lots better known than Tim Pawlenty, who's practically been living here, and he knows all the players" said Steve Roberts, a former Republican National Committee member.
As GOP national chair, "Haley was the closest thing that the Republicans had to a president in the 1990s," said Steve Grubbs, a Davenport-based media consultant who was a former state party chairman and legislator. "Can a southern governor with a bit of a drawl convince voters here in Iowa that he can win? Sure. There are a lot of southern counties in Iowa where you'll get a drawl," he laughed.
Mr. Barbour dropped out of the University of Mississippi to work for Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. Mr. Reed was impressed by him and persuaded party leaders to appoint him to run the state's 1970 federal census when he was 22.
Much has been written about Mr. Barbour's home town of Yazoo City. The late great Southern writer Willie Morris waxed lyrical about the place, in his memoir "North Toward Home": "Green and lush all year except for those four stark months at the end and the beginning, heavy with leafy smells, at night full of rumblings and lost ghosts."
Mr. Morris, who died in 1999, once told the Boston Globe that Mr. Barbour's hometown was "a jumble of black and white that would have been jarring to an easterner possessed of the stereotype" that great distance separated the two races. They were segregated, to be sure, but in close quarters every day: Mike Espy, the state's first black congressman since Reconstruction, lived right around the corner from Mr. Morris and Mr. Barbour, as did pro football star Willie Brown.
Mr. Barbour is not a bigot, and the image he presents, whether he means to or not -- the portly, shambling, silver-haired white southern "pol" -- is misleading, says Hodding Carter III, who grew up in nearby Greenville. Mr. Carter, who is on the opposite end of the spectrum politically, thinks Mr. Barbour is "a wonderful guy."
Unlike Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who refused to acknowledge slavery as a cause of the Civil War, Mr. Barbour's gaffes are smaller and possibly not as spontaneous as they seem, said Mr. Carter, who served in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
"He's much smarter than the image he presents," said Mr. Carter. "He is constantly calculating what he needs to do with a wink and a nod to appeal to the hard core right-wing base and at the same time be defended by friends who say he's not a racist, which is true."
So as far as GOP presidential primary politics go, "there is no one in the base of the Republican party who is going to sit there and worry about parsing ... the causes of the civil war," Mr. Carter said. "Instead you have someone who can speak to the base, which is in the South, and solidify it by his candidacy. His Southern-ness is one hell of a leg up for him. Of course, can he carry Michigan? Well, George Wallace embarrassed Jimmy Carter in Michigan. It's possible."
Mr. Barbour's comments on race didn't appear to bother Robert Dale, an African-American public relations executive who attended Mr. Barbour's Chicago speech.
"He got 37 percent of the black vote in Mississippi when he was re-elected, which is remarkable," Mr. Dale said. "He's no racist. I don't necessarily agree with his analysis of the economy -- he failed to mention that Republicans were in charge when Obama took office and inherited all these problems-- but I've been impressed with what he's done as governor."
Mr. Barbour also hasn't shied away from his past on K Street -- although he doesn't go into much detail, either, about his work representing the tobacco and oil industries. His firm, BGR Group, was named by Fortune Magazine in 1998 as the second most powerful in America.
"I was a lobbyist," he told the Chicago audience, seeing "sausage made close up."
As governor, he adds, he balanced the budget, established a new manufacturing base with a Toyota plant and, in particular got the state back on its feet after Katrina, even if critics note that a) New Orleans isn't in Mississippi; and b) Mr. Barbour, as a Republican governor, was close to the Bush White House.
Then there's this: In an era when a youthful, energetic image counts for so much in presidential politics, the somewhat jowly Mr. Barbour is being painted by some critics as the very caricature of a southern political boss.
"In 2012, Americans are not going to vote for William Howard Taft," Robert Guttman, head of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Politics and Foreign Relations, said flatly.
Mr. Barbour tackles the image issue head on, telling reporters in Des Moines that he's lost 20 pounds and hopes to lose more, even as he raves about the chicken fettucini Alfredo he had in Sioux City the night before.
"I think people are more concerned about brains. If I run, and I haven't decided yet, this is going to be a campaign about policy."
Policy. It's a word Mr. Barbour repeats again and again in his speeches, like a fervent prayer: Let this be a campaign about policy. Not about race in the South in the 1960s. Not about lobbying for big corporations in the 1990s. Not about his weight, or his accent, or his age. But policy -- i.e., as he puts it more colorfully in his speeches, Mr. Obama's "explosive spending, skyrocketing deficits, gargantuan debt, calls for record tax increases, government-run health care, out-of-control regulations and anti-growth energy policy,"
Because, when you're running for president, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com