DES MOINES, Iowa — Skipping the Iowa caucuses? Not Haley Barbour.
In a week that made clear he's all but running for president, the Mississippi governor told Iowa Republicans on Tuesday that their state would be central in his campaign – if, of course, he decides to seek the GOP nomination.
"If I run, I'm going to run to win Iowa, to win Iowa in the caucuses and to win Iowa in the general election," Barbour said during an Iowa Federation of Republican Woman luncheon at the state Capitol. "In fact, I think it will be a key state in our campaign."
The two-term governor – a veteran GOP operative and longtime Washington lobbyist – said he would make a decision by the end of next month, after the Mississippi Legislature ends its session. While acknowledging he isn't well-known outside political circles, he made no attempt hide his aspirations as he attacked President Barack Obama's policies and catered to activists in the state that hosts the nation's first presidential caucuses.
Barbour's comments are significant because, should he run as expected, he would enter a field of likely candidates who have big black marks against them in the eyes of social conservatives who dominate Iowa's caucuses.
It's unclear how hard others will compete in the state. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, both Mormons who have taken moderate positions on some social issues in the past, may have difficulty winning over the right. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's three marriages also might turn off conservatives. The field also is likely to include former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
"I look forward to getting to spend time with people who care about their schools, care about their kids and go to church on Sunday," Barbour said in Des Moines, among three stops during his swing through Iowa.
"Iowa feels a whole lot like where I'm from," he added. "I'm from a rural, big agricultural state where people are hospitable and warm, where people who aren't going to vote for you are nice to you."
Barbour noted this week's visit was his second to Iowa in the last month, and he's scheduled to return in a couple weeks. Barbour's luncheon in Des Moines came a day after he spoke in Chicago, Obama's hometown, and he plans to head later this week to fundraising hot spot California.
Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he would focus his campaign on policy differences he has with Obama. He said the president is especially vulnerable on energy issues because of spiking gasoline prices at home and the nuclear crisis in Japan pushing energy issues to the forefront of U.S. debate.
He accused the White House of harboring a policy that increases costs for Americans.
"Their energy policy is to drive up the cost of energy so people will use less of it," Barbour said during Tuesday's luncheon. "Four-dollar gasoline is bad for Mississippi, it's bad for Iowa, it's bad for America. Their policy is more expensive American energy when it ought to be more American energy."
It wasn't the first time Barbour has taken aim at the president's energy policies. Earlier this month, he accused the Obama administration of favoring a run-up in gas prices to prod consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars. Administration officials rejected the claims.
Barbour said he's focused on results and, targeting a campaign slogan used by Obama, said "the American people are tired of being asked to judge politicians by the politicians' hopes and aspirations."
He said he also would focus on policy differences between the GOP and Obama, such as cutting spending and not raising taxes, arguing that voters want a new direction.
"Last year's election was the most massive repudiation of any administration's policies in my lifetime," Barbour said. "If I run, you can expect two things out of me: one, to try to win in Iowa; and two, plain-spoken common sense."