In a surprise announcement that reshapes the field of candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour took himself out of the 2012 presidential race on Monday.
"I will not be a candidate for president next year," he said in a statement. "This has been a difficult, personal decision."
The decision by the 63-year-old veteran Republican player was unexpected. He had hired staff and had begun travelling in what appeared to be a preliminary effort at a presidential race. But Barbour said that after further consideration, he decided he wasn't 100 percent ready for the massive commitment it required.
“A candidate for president today is embracing a 10-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else," he said. "His (or her) supporters expect and deserve no less than absolute fire in the belly from their candidate. I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required."
Barbour’s early maneuverings included hiring key staffers in early states. Barbour had signed on Rob Collins, a former top adviser to Eric Cantor, who just left his job as head of the American Action Network, to manage a presidential campaign. He hired Jim Dyke, a South Carolina political consultant, to run his communications team; former Bob Dole adviser Scott Reed and New Hampshire veteran Mike Dennehy had signed on as well. And Florida Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, a Mississippi native, would have helped Barbour in the Sunshine State.
Barbour has been recuperating from back surgery that his aides described as non-invasive and minor. But Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican strategist and friend of Barbour, pointed to the back pain as a major reason the governor decided not to enter the race.
“Obviously, when you’re in misery the campaign trail is not fun,” said Rollins, who ran former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008.
Another factor, according to an official close to Barbour: Concern that the campaign could draw focus on Barbour's roots in the segregated South of his childhood—something that already had begun to happen—turning a potential contest between him and President Obama, the nation's first black president, into a battle about race and not policy.
Ed Gillespie, a protégé of Barbour’s who followed him into the GOP chairman’s job, had hoped to support his friend’s presidential campaign but said he was not completely surprised at Barbour’s announcement.
“People close to him knew he was going through a decision-making process,” Gillespie said.
Barbour's exit “leaves a very muddled field” for the GOP nomination, Gillespie added.
A former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association, longtime lobbyist, and onetime aide to President Reagan, Barbour is a formidable fundraiser and a well-known player in Washington. But he’s less well-known outside the Beltway: polls showed him with low name recognition compared to some of his potential presidential rivals.
There were other challenges to his candidacy: A Southern drawl that brought into sharp relief his string of racially incendiary comments, a lobbying resume that was sure to invite unflattering client checks, and his state’s consistently low rankings on national educational and economic scales would likely bring scrutiny.
Barbour tried to defuse his image problem with self-deprecating humor. He famously described himself as a “fat redneck” and told reporters they would know he was running if he dropped 40 pounds (he did lose weight, but aides estimated his weight loss as closer to 20). But the seasoned political veteran’s preliminary steps towards the starting line of the White House race were surprisingly stumble-prone: He had to apologize for comments that appeared to downplay the significance of racial discrimination in his state, and an aide had to resign over politically incorrect e-mails.
Barbour has longtime ties to two other prospective GOP White House hopefuls, and there is some speculation that their decisions about getting into the race could be linked to his. He worked in the Reagan White House with now-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the families of the two men remain close; Huckabee has also praised Barbour as something of a political mentor.
Ron Fournier, Reid Wilson, Beth Reinhard, and Jessica Taylor contributed.