POLITICS
04/26/2011 11:49 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2011

Haley Barbour Out, Ron Paul In: Will Voters Like The 2012 GOP Field Now?

When we last checked in with how people felt about the way the 2012 GOP primary field was shaping up, people basically hated it.

A "56 percent majority of Republican voters told a CBS News/New York Times poll that none of the names officially or unofficially in the hat at this stage made them feel enthusiastic as potential nominees."

Well, okay, there have been a few changes.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has declared that he won't be running for president, while libertarian iconoclast Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has signaled his intention to press ahead. Will people like their choices more now? Please say you'll like it!

Actually, Barbour's departure isn't likely to have an immediate effect on the broader mood of Republican voters -- in that CBS/NYT poll, 85 percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about him to form an opinion. Now, all you need to know is that he's not running.

But there's long-term impact to consider, beginning with who benefits most from Barbour's early exit. Maybe it will be his best pal, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has been edging toward a decision on a bid for the presidency. Or it could be fellow southerner Mike Huckabee, who did some early buttering-up of Barbour's backside in the hopes that he could, in the event that Barbour pulled out, gain access to Barbour's Rolodex.

With Barbour gone, the national party sheds itself of some baggage. Barbour's first few months of exploration were dogged by continual reminders of the South's checkered past as a haven of Civil War fetishism and racial strife. Barbour's amnesiac recollections of growing up in Yazoo City and his tone-deaf testimony in support of the societal value of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens earned him so much scrutiny that he was actually compelled to endorse the Union victory in the American Civil War (which actually isn't as popular a position in Mississippi as you might expect, or at least hope.)

It also means that Barbour won't be trooping around the campaign trail extolling the virtues of lobbyists anymore, either. Part of the central case for his presidency was that he was so skilled at influence-peddling that those skills would almost certainly translate to a situation where he could "lobby our allies and our international competitors." As Jon Ward reported Monday, the should-Haley-run-or-should-Haley-bail decision split Barbour's closest confidants, and the "go for it" camp was, unsurprisingly, led by Barbour's "former lobbying partners."

Contemporaneous poll results conducted during this time found that Americans generally hate and mistrust lobbyists, as they should.

Still, what Barbour had going for him as a candidate was that amid all the indecision of his fellow aspirants and the hype-fueled crazy-boom of Donald Trump, Barbour was the first to challenge the rest of the field in a significant way on a policy matter: the war in Afghanistan.

Speaking at a Scott County GOP event in Quad Cities, Iowa, Barbour was pronounced in his skepticism. "What is our mission?" he asked, "How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan? ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?"

Added Barbour: "Anybody who says you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility on anything else." In a slow-to-start, play-it-safe campaign season, the governor had injected a dose of guts.

Ben Smith was quick to make the point: "This means, among other things, that there won't be a major peace candidate in 2012." Actually, it really goes to show how lost the cause of ending the war in Afghanistan is that yesterday, the guy who was starting to question the war quit the race, and one of the war's more vociferous opponents -- Ron Paul -- got closer to jumping in with both feet. Afghanistan skepticism continues to be voiced most loudly by the less influential "outsider" candidates.

(This was also underscored yesterday by Mitt Romney's op-ed gaffe, in which he forgot that the past four years were not, in fact, "peacetime." The line drew swift mockery, and by the end of the day, Mitt Romney was doing what Mitt Romney excels at: walking back whatever it was that Mitt Romney previously said.

Of course, Romney's perspective is hardly surprising: it's not as if he has a personal stake in the material or the human costs of the war. The extent to which the war in Afghanistan increases taxpayer debt or increases taxpayer deaths is not something that will touch Romney's life in a significant way.)

It seems pretty clear that Barbour wasn't exactly building up an army of dedicated grassroots supporters, but the same isn't true of Ron Paul. The Texas congressman's campaigns for higher office are longshots, but they're the direct product of the agitation of thousands of fanatical devotees, who have become pretty good at getting to the right place and time to lend voice to the causes Paul holds dear -- radically reduced government and an end to militarism and the Federal Reserve.

In 2008, those supporters were some starry-eyed types with a blimp and a dream. Flash forward to 2012, and they can lay a solid claim to having been the protoplasm from whence the Tea Party congealed. The positions of the Paul supporters aren't completely in sync with everything you might hear at a Tea Party rally, but thanks to the successful Senate campaign of Ron's son Rand, the elder Paul can walk in that world.

In fact, the most interesting thing about Haley Barbour's departure is that the GOP field has lost the one guy who was a bona fide GOP insider and a proud establishmentarian. To borrow an observation from Benjy Sarlin, the race we're left with is between a bunch of blue-state governors with moderate policy profiles who will try to pander to the Tea Party as hard as possible, and a slew of Tea Party types who will struggle to win favor with GOP elites in Washington and independent voters beyond the Beltway.

So, maybe this won't be the week that voters start loving the 2012 field after all.

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