Last Southern Candidate Standing

haley collage Last Southern Candidate Standing

Aside from Andre Bauer, the South Carolina lieutenant governor who may soon luck into his state’s top job, the biggest beneficiary of Mark Sanford’s sudden fall from grace could actually be the governor of Mississippi.

That would be 61-year-old Haley Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s and who is plainly interested in seeking the presidency in 2012—which explains why, as news of the Sanford scandal spread yesterday, Barbour was in New Hampshire to speak at a state G.O.P. fund-raiser.

The Sanford news will hardly make Barbour the ’12 front-runner, or even a top-tier contender, but it does help him in two key ways.

First, it leaves him—for now—as the only sitting Southern governor with a clear path to run in ’12. This is no small accomplishment. Not long ago, there were five Southern governors who were considered logical contenders, but circumstances have conspired to thin their ranks dramatically.

The first casualty was Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, supposedly a rising G.O.P. star whose name was floated last summer as a potential running mate for John McCain. But Jindal, handed a perfect opportunity to announce his arrival on the national stage, embarrassingly flubbed his response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address back in February.

Sure, some on the right rushed to his defense, but the speech took the wind out of the nascent Jindal movement. Perhaps he can still recover to run in four years, but (especially with his gubernatorial post up in November 2011—just weeks before the Iowa caucuses) Jindal’s White House pursuit will probably have to wait for 2016, or beyond.

Then there’s Rick Perry of Texas, who kicked up a firestorm by suggesting this spring that his state might try to secede from the Union.  But Perry will be sidelined from any political ventures outside of Texas for at least the next year, thanks to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s decision to challenge him in next year’s G.O.P. primary. If he loses, any national aspirations will die on the spot. If he wins, he could still conceivably mount a ’12 bid. But, for now anyway, he’s out of the running.

Florida’s Charlie Crist, who also got considerable mileage out of last year’s veepstakes, was also seen as a ’12 prospect. Instead, though, he’s opted to run next year for the Senate seat that Mel Martinez is vacating.

And, of course, there’s Sanford, who—like Jindal and Perry—telegraphed his ’12 interest earlier this year by seeking to refuse federal stimulus money for his state.

And so, all of a sudden, there’s a lot more room for Barbour to stand out and to position himself as the South’s candidate. Right now, the three G.O.P. front-runners are Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. It’s clear that Romney and Huckabee want to run; Palin’s intentions are far less clear. In a race with Romney and Huckabee, Barbour could pitch himself to Southerners as more “like them” than Romney, with his Northern roots and Mormonism, and more electable in the fall than Huckabee. The fewer Southerners who are in the race, the more plausible it becomes that Barbour could pull this off.

Sanford’s troubles have also given Barbour a new title: chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, a post that Sanford announced on Wednesday he’d resign from. To Republican voters, of course, it’s a meaningless position, but it does give Barbour a built-in excuse to travel far and wide from Mississippi over the next two years. With his new position (through which he can raise money for and direct money to G.O.P. campaigns), he will receive many new invitations to address Republican groups across the country—the perfect contact-building prelude to a national campaign.

Last year, John McCain was able to win the G.O.P. nod in spite of an average primary performance in most Southern states. He lucked out because Southern conservatives were split between Romney and Huckabee (with some going for McCain, too), which prevented the region from uniting behind a single candidate. The splintered South then allowed McCain to overwhelm his foes with crushing victories in moderate-friendly big states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California.

But, with the G.O.P.’s base shriveling in every region outside the South, the old Confederacy has the potential in 2012 to be more decisive than ever. It was the South, don’t forget, that united around George H. W. Bush in 1988, allowing him to eliminate Bob Dole from the race, and that helped George W. Bush finish off McCain in 2000. Barbour’s challenge is to find a path to similar regional unanimity in ’12.

That said, Barbour remains a long shot. He lacks the national reputation of his most likely rivals and runs far behind them in the polls. Many Southerners may instinctively prefer him to Romney or Huckabee, but they won’t line up with him in meaningful numbers if his looks like a lost cause. One of the reason both Bushes were able to consolidate the South was that they began the race as clear front-runners.

Barbour is in no such position. Then again, promising Republican candidates seem to be dropping like flies at the moment.