Can a candidate’s profile be higher after he decides not to run for president? Haley Barbour might be about to find out.
The Mississippi governor's surprise decision on Monday to pull the plug on a run for the GOP presidential nomination—after staffing up and slimming down in what seemed to be a methodical preparation to make one—may have turned a second-tier candidate for the nation's top political job into a leading kingmaker. His support would be very crucial to anybody’s efforts," said Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina GOP consultant who was likely to back the former RNC chairman for 2012. “He’s not going away.”
Also on Monday, hours after Barbour announced he was not going to run, National Journal reported that Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, will be announcing the creation of a presidential exploratory committee on Tuesday.
Barbour's political savvy, fundraising prowess, and deep connections in the Republican Party will make him one of the most sought-after endorsements for candidates remaining in the race, GOP insiders said.
“He is by far the most valuable player in this political party. Anybody who grabs Haley has a great addition,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist who ran Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign.
"I suspect his phone is ringing off the hook now," added Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and Barbour protege.
In the race for Barbour’s support, there’s already a clear front-runner: his friend Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has been publicly undecided about running. Barbour’s friendship with Daniels dates to their work under Reagan, and means that the temperature around the Hoosier governor’s ruminations has just been elevated.
“I know that Governor Daniels had no interest getting involved in a difficult campaign against a friend of his, and now this removes that obstacle,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who is working for Horizon PAC, the campaign apparatus being assembled for Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman’s prospective bid.
Later on Monday, Daniels praised Barbour in a statement.
“Haley Barbour is a great citizen; he’d have made a great president. I’d have been proud to try to help him had he chosen to run. The Barbours have been close and true friends to the Daniels family, and we will always be 100 percent supportive of any decision they believe is best for them.”
The reasons the two men wouldn’t square off against each other are practical as well as personal—the two longtime Republicans each share a similar base of support among the establishment GOP.
“It would’ve been very difficult for them personally to run against each other, and it would’ve also split the Washington establishment support and made it less tenable for either of them to run,” said Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight. “This way the Beltway folks will be able to line up behind a particular candidate, whether it’s Daniels or someone else.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who were looking at supporting Barbour will now look at Daniels,” he added. “He’ll be their next first option.”
Barbour’s exit compounds pressure on Daniels to make a decision soon, and the Indiana governor has already said repeatedly he would make up his mind not long after the state’s legislative session ends April 29, this Friday. Privately, one person close to the governor put the chances he runs at 70 percent, although they cautioned the only person who really knows what Daniels will do is Daniels himself.
Regardless of Daniels’s bid, Barbour’s decision leaves Republicans staring at a potentially thin field competing for the party’s nomination. Of the most prominent GOP presidential hopefuls, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia appear guaranteed to run.
Their presence could be overshadowed by the absences of, in addition to Barbour, marquee candidates like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, whose intentions toward the 2012 campaign remain murky.
Barbour’s decision means Huckabee, should he decide to run, would be the only major candidate in the GOP field from the South, potentially a key advantage in early primary states like South Carolina.
Already the public genuflecting from other candidates has begun. Little more than an hour after Barbour’s announcement, Pawlenty had already issued a statement saying “nobody has done more than Haley to build the Republican Party over the last three decades.”
“When Republicans defeat Barack Obama next year, it will be thanks to the solid party foundation Haley helped build,” he said.
Jessica Taylor and Cameron Joseph contributed.