Can Haley Barbour Be the GOP’s Corporate Candidate?

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Like a lot of putative 2012 presidential candidates, Haley Barbour is staffing up and barnstorming the country, but he’s merely announced a future announcement about whether he’ll run. Today Barbour offered a preview of what his platform would look like. In a speech at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the two-term Mississippi governor blasted President Obama for “explosive spending, skyrocketing deficits, gargantuan debt, calls for record tax increases, government-run health care, out-of-control regulations, and [an] anti-growth energy policy,” according to text prepared for delivery.

Barbour’s decision to deliver his indictment of Obama in the president’s hometown was no accident. The speech is an extended juxtaposition between an Administration purportedly bereft of “people who have ever signed the front side of a paycheck” and a presidential hopeful who understands how business works. It’s a clarion call for the C-suite set, one that ends with a telling quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich.” Barbour urges lower taxes, more drilling, less spending, and a litany of other stuff to lure business and promote economic growth. He advocates entitlement reform, but doesn’t really say how, other than to herald his record of rooting out Medicare “waste, fraud and abuse” — the golden triumvirate of generalized policy. He argues his work as a Washington lobbyist is a strength rather than a liability, and sells his stewardship of his poverty-stricken state, noting that “our overriding goal was to show the world Mississippi was open for business.”

The stump speech is thick with conservative talking points and plays liberally with some facts: taxes have gone down, “government-run health care” is not really government-run, and Democrats are quite good at bending over backward for corporations themselves. But it seems to show how Barbour would position himself in the not-so-crowded GOP field. If Mitt Romney is the putative front-runner, Tim Pawlenty is the anti-Romney everyman and Sarah Palin waits in the wings to galvanize social-conservative populists, can Barbour carve out a spot as the pro-business manager? Doing so would require cornering a piece of party doctrine on which there’s very little actual daylight between his competitors.

Washington hands describe Barbour as a master of the inside game, likable and connected, with the talent and Rolodex to open checkbooks. In TIME’s 10 Questions last week, David Brooks summarized the case against: “Barbour’s a good governor, but he looks like the kind of guy Michael Moore would cast [as a Republican candidate]: Southern guy, heavy guy, was a tobacco lobbyist. I just don’t think that’s going to fly.” The off-color quips won’t help.

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