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Is Barbour's Southern Handicap Overstated?

Is Barbour's Southern Handicap Overstated?

By Scott Conroy - February 7, 2011

As Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour steps up his efforts to explore a possible presidential run, he faces one question that none of the other prospective candidates will have to address: can a back-slapping, Ole Miss Rebels fan with a molasses-rich drawl connect on a human level with caucus-goers and primary voters whose cultural roots are far from Yazoo City?

Though his Deep South persona and good ol' boy reputation are often cited as significant drawbacks for Barbour in the first voting states, Republican operatives and officials in Iowa and New Hampshire point to a bevy of historical and anecdotal evidence which suggests that he could do just fine navigating the snowy fields surrounding Sioux City or shaking hands with voters at a Dunkin' Donuts in Bedford, New Hampshire.

Iowa State Senator Bill Dix, who remains one of the more coveted endorsements in the State Capitol among 2012 GOP hopefuls, said that the vast majority of Iowa voters are more concerned about leadership qualities than regional traits.

"It may be a bigger issue with the general population, but as far as caucus-goers are concerned, they connect with people that are personable and bring forward new ideas and approaches that create enthusiasm," Dix said. "Those who would suggest that Barbour's being from the Deep South is a handicap, I think, are overstating the case."

One need only look at former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's victory in the most recent caucuses to find the latest evidence that a Southern politician can be successful in Iowa. Southern presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush also saw their paths to the White House run through Iowa.

It could easily be argued that largely rural and culturally conservative Iowa shares much more of a natural kinship with states south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it is far more difficult to make that case when it comes to New Hampshire, where the makeup of the Republican primary electorate is vastly different than that of any Southern state.

"It is the case that a good number of New Hampshire Republicans see the national Republican Party as too Southern and too religiously conservative," said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. "I think that's something that Barbour or any Southern Republican governor would have to contend with, but I don't know that you look at Barbour necessarily and say that he's a religious right candidate in the way you would perhaps with Mike Huckabee."

Huckabee struggled to a distant third-place finish in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, just five days after his resounding victory in Iowa.

Still, Jimmy Carter's victory in the 1976 New Hampshire primary and the strong second-place showing that then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton achieved in 1992 prove that a thick Southern accent is not an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to winning over Yankee Republicans who may never have been to a megachurch or enjoyed a mint julep.

"The daunting part perhaps for someone like Barbour who's so well-known inside the beltway and in national Republican elite circles is, are you willing to go to New Hampshire and face the fact that day after day, you're virtually unknown, and you're going to have to humble yourself and introduce voters who don't know who you are and don't much care?" Scala said. "You get the sense that not a lot of activists are signed up yet, so it's nothing that some calls from the candidate himself couldn't necessarily cure. New Hampshire Republicans are always looking for what's new out there, and they're also looking for personal attention."

Key New Hampshire GOP operatives have thus far come away with mixed perceptions on how much of an early push Barbour is making in the Granite State. Some have heard nothing from his political orbit, while others say that people close to the governor have made preliminary inquiries to get the lay of the land.

Jamie Burnett, who ran Romney's New Hampshire political operation in 2008 but is currently unaligned with any prospective 2012 candidate, agreed that Barbour's Deep South roots would not be a major issue for him if he decides to campaign in the nation's first primary state.

"The problem for Barbour right now is that he's not here, and no one knows him -- there are candidates with a great deal more name recognition and popular support," Burnett said. "Barbour needs to begin to develop an organization here sooner rather than later. If he wants to compete for the space that's currently occupied, he needs to start doing that now."

Barbour traveled to New Hampshire in September of 2010 to campaign on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate John Stephen but has no future trips to the state on his current agenda. He recently held private meetings with key Republicans in South Carolina -- a state that could become a near-must win for him if he were to enter the presidential race.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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