Haley Barbour used to joke that if he started to slim down, it would be a sign he was getting ready to run for president.
Well, the Mississippi governor sure doesn’t look like he’s been nibbling watercress and hitting the treadmill, but it’s getting pretty clear that he is headed toward the campaign trail.
This week, Barbour made two moves that seemed to telegraph his intentions.
First, he agreed to appear at the forum being hosted by Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King’s Conservative Principles PAC. Barbour made visits to Iowa as chairman of the Republican Governors Association to help Gov. Terry Branstad get elected last year, but there’s no pretext for being at King’s forum other than running for president.
King is likely to be the kingmaker in Iowa this year. He represents the part of the state with the highest concentration of Republican voters and he is a favorite of hardcore social and fiscal conservatives. He waited until close to the 2008 Iowa caucuses to endorse Fred Thompson, and the delay (and Thompson’s lackluster campaigning) likely cost King the chance to have a greater influence.
Iowa insiders say King is not making the same mistake this year and candidates know that the March 26 event in Des Moines is their chance to audition for what could be the most important endorsement in the Hawkeye State this year other than Branstad’s.
It’s not surprising that potential candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will be there. For long-shot candidacies, no event in Iowa is too small.
But an appearance by Barbour is a big deal. He’s a sitting governor and former Republican National Committee chairman with huge fundraising ability. He doesn’t need to go to cattle calls for congressmen 10 months before the primary. Making this play says Barbour isn’t afraid to get down in the grassroots and doesn’t want to build up unreasonable expectations by staying out of the race too long. Maybe he doesn’t want to make a Fred Thompson mistake either.
The other big move by Barbour this week was hiring Jim Dyke as the communications adviser to his political action committee. Dyke is one of the few remaining personnel prizes in the world of Republican operatives.
Dyke was the top talker for the RNC under former Chairman Ed Gillespie and is plenty plugged in to Washington, but he runs his operation out of Charleston, S.C. now. Dyke is considered the man to see about winning the all-important South Carolina primary. Hiring Dyke is the equivalent to Barbour setting up a roadblock for the rest of the field in South Carolina.
Another sign that Barbour will run: his close friend, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, has started edging away from a candidacy. Daniels has paid dearly among GOP base voters for what he called “careless” comments that made him sound like he approved of statehouse Democrats who fled his state to block a vote on a labor bill. The irony is that Daniels has one of the strongest records of any governor in the country when it comes to taming government employee unions. But his remarks on the day that America turned its attention to the issue because of the unrest in Wisconsin proved damaging.
Daniels, whose family is said to be opposed to a run, worked hard in subsequent days to recover his momentum, but the experience was a bitter foretaste of the gotcha game that all presidential aspirants must play. Plainspoken Daniels has already had to deal with his call for a “truce” on social issues and would surely not relish the thought of explaining his way through primary season.
Daniels said last week that his legislative agenda in Indiana “could well get in the way of any national participation. If it does, it does." And a Daniels adviser concedes that the “timing may not be right” for a run.
Daniels and Barbour have an abiding friendship that started when the two served in the Reagan White House together. It would be much more comfortable for Barbour to run for president with Daniels’ support than it would be to run against him. Plus, if Daniels isn’t running, he would be free to lend his stature on fiscal issues to his old buddy.
Barbour insiders and admirers are now past trying to tamp down speculation about a run.
“People like what they see with Haley,” said one. “I don’t think many Republicans are satisfied with what’s out there so far, so there is certainly the place for him.”
The timetable for a Barbour run remains the same as it has been for months: a public announcement sometime in April, after the Mississippi Legislature adjourns. Last year, the session lasted until May 3 as lawmakers fought over Barbour’s plan to force state workers to fund more of their own benefits. But this year, the docket is light and state Democrats, who control the House Representatives in Jackson, haven’t seemed inclined to try to gum up the works.
With so many signs pointing to a Barbour run, an announcement five or six weeks from now may be little more than a formality. And members of his team don’t seem to disagree.
In fact, in a season where Republican hopefuls seem intent on waiting as long as they can to declare, Barbour may benefit from jumping on the early side.
Aside from giving him more time to amass a war chest, Barbour will benefit from what another adviser calls “a long discussion.”
The big knock on Barbour is that at a time when the Republican base is yearning for outsiders, Barbour is the ultimate inside man. After his work for Reagan and in the RNC, Barbour made a mint as a D.C. lobbyist representing folks that needed lots of help with their image, like the tobacco industry.
Supporters of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney say told me that Barbour is “fatally compromised” because of his work greasing skids in Washington. And if Barbour gets going, expect the Romney camp to bore in on that point.
The best bet for Barbour is finding a way to coalesce all of the dissatisfaction with Romney over the former Massachusetts governor’s health care plan and evolving positions on social issues. But the best way for Romney to stop Barbour is to paint Barbour as a cartoon version of a Deep South political boss with some unsavory associations. And his appearance will make Romney’s job easier.
That’s why it may benefit Barbour to start taking his knocks early and deprive Romney of shock value later on.
“The governor is going to have to talk about (his lobbying) and he’s going to have to talk about it at length,” said the second adviser. “And he’s going to have to keep talking about it in the context of a career that includes effective leadership and tireless advocacy for conservative causes.
“And if other people want to make this a discussion of past records, that’s a discussion I suspect the governor would be very welcome to have.”
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.