After Super Tuesday and again just before the polls closed in the so-called Potomac Primaries on Feb. 12, I talked with Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi and one of the sharpest political minds in America, about how he sees Election 2008 unfolding. Barbour was a powerful Washington lobbyist before becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, during which time the GOP captured both houses of Congress. In 2003 he was elected governor and was in the top job when Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of his state. Barbour's leadership—and, some say, his connections in Washington—helped Mississippi recover much more quickly than neighboring Louisiana. Early on, Barbour was mentioned as a Republican candidate for President in 2008, but he instead opted to seek reelection last year.
What are your thoughts on Mitt Romney dropping out?
I think Governor Romney did the country and the party a service. It was the right thing for him to recognize that Senator McCain is going to win the nomination. He put the future of the country in front of his own interests. I take my hat off to Mitt Romney.
Isn't it sort of undemocratic to say to Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul: Get out of the way?
I don't think that's undemocratic at all. It serves no purpose once somebody is the winner to keep shooting at him.
What about recent stories in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal suggesting that conservative animosity toward McCain isn't abating? You had Newsweek's cover story this week, "There Will Be Blood: Why the Right Hates McCain." He was booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference. President Bush said he had some fence-mending to do. Do you think Republicans are really rallying around the front-runner?
Just in the last day or so, Gary Bauer, a very, very conservative leader in our party, endorsed McCain. [Texas Representative] Jeb Hensarling, who's chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the House, the most conservative House Republicans, endorsed Senator McCain. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and a very solid conservative, has come out for McCain.
So when someone like Christian leader James Dobson speaks out forcefully against McCain, you don't think that suggests a fissure in the right-wing ranks?
If people like that don't vote for John McCain, it means Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is going to be President. It's one thing in February or May or even August to say that you're not willing to support John McCain. But life is a series of choices, and inevitably the choice in November is going to be between McCain and either Clinton or Obama. Now, those people will look into their hearts and decide what to do. But for an incredibly high percentage of conservatives and Republicans, they'll vote for John McCain.
If McCain is the GOP nominee, can he win the South without someone like Huckabee on the ticket?
Sure. It's one thing to run against Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney—or Rudy Giuliani, for that matter—in a primary. But when Southerners compare McCain to either Obama or Clinton, there's no question in my mind that a heavy majority are going to vote for McCain.
So will you endorse John McCain?
There's no reason to endorse anybody. Senator McCain has wrapped up the nomination.
Some people might say that even though he's now talking the talk about extending the Bush tax cuts that he originally voted against, in the end he won't do it.
Well, I believe he will. I accept his explanation that in 2001 he was concerned that we didn't couple the tax cuts with some spending cuts. I would not have voted the same as Senator McCain, but I don't discount that explanation.
Where do you think business is in this election?
Main Street wants the Republicans in the White House. But there's a difference between Main Street and Wall Street. Big Business doesn't have a party. Small business does: It's the Republican Party. Many people in Big Business feel like they are obliged to play both sides, maybe because they have stockholders or directors in both parties, or maybe they think the corporate world is best served by having a foot in both camps. Small business is not like that. They're not trying to buy access. You'll see that Main Street and small business will continue to be heavily Republican.
The economy is the No. 1 issue for voters. In the face of the housing debacle, credit woes, and a rocky market, how can the GOP convince voters it can fix the economy?
We've actually had a very good economy for the last 25 years. Now we've had an event in the credit markets where, candidly, some of the most respected financial institutions in America created a bunch of investment vehicles they didn't really understand. That concerns me, and I think it will cause a brief, shallow downturn. But when we are talking about a recession with 5% unemployment—if in fact we have a recession—that is starting from an awfully strong economic position. President Bush has proposed the right kind of remedies, and, in fairness, the Democrats in Congress have embraced them, too.
What are your thoughts on the emergence of Obama?
Senator Obama is not only attractive and energetic, but he's very positive. He leaves people with a sense of hope. He's a powerful, charismatic personality. Having said that, he's got the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. And there's so little in the news media about his policy positions. That'll change between now and November. One thing about this election that the press overlooks is that there are going to be more voters in play. You're going to have many independents who either haven't decided who they will vote for or who will change their minds between now and November. And unlike the 2000 and 2004 elections, this time you're going to have a lot of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who are going to consider voting for the other side. It's going be an election about persuasion.