Barbour in 2012?

One governor’s sex scandal is another's big opportunity. With Mark Sanford besmirched, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour is poised for a run in 2012. But will the powerful Republican’s murky past get in the way of his—and the party’s—future?

If there’s hand-wringing in Columbia, South Carolina, over Governor Mark Sanford’s affair, there may be some back-slapping 600 miles west in Jackson, Mississippi. That’s because the state capital is the home to the man most likely to profit from Sanford’s downfall—Governor Haley Barbour.

Not that Barbour has actually been home much these days. There he was on Monday, dining with Republican strategists in Washington at the Caucus Room, a restaurant that he happens to co-own. On Wednesday, the Mississippi governor swung up to New Hampshire. It was there, while raising cash for the state Republican Party, that Barbour heard the news about Sanford. And where’s a governor to go after hosting a fundraiser in the Granite State? Iowa, naturally, another state known for its crucial early role in presidential campaigns.

Barbour’s success as a lobbyist and fundraiser has earned him a place at the head of the GOP table—but could come back to haunt him as a presidential candidate.

Hang out in these states long enough and people will start whispering about your intentions for 2012. One confidante told CNN this week, "I think Haley is probably like a lot of other governors and senators who think, “I could be that guy or gal who could lead the party,' and it may be that Haley is the person…" A Republican operative told The Washington Post earlier this month: “Here's Haley Barbour making some 2012 moves. When you start going to Iowa and New Hampshire, the writing's on the wall." (Barbour performed the normal second move of this two-step by telling reporters in New Hampshire that he’d “ probably never” decide to run for the nation’s highest office.)

Sanford’s meltdown resulted in a major uptick in Barbour’s national profile by placing the Mississippian in charge of the Republican Governors Association a year ahead of schedule. Now Barbour, according to political analyst Marc Ambinder, is in competition with former Massachusetts governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Mitt Romney as “the most powerful Republican in politics.” Indeed, it was Romney’s position as the head of the association in 2006 that allowed him to boost his own national profile in preparation for his presidential run.

But is Haley Barbour the right figure for the Republican future?

He certainly carries with him a great deal of the party’s past. The 61-year-old lawyer served as a political director of the Reagan White House. He co-founded a heavyweight Washington lobbying firm, which thrived during the Clinton years, and then rose to prominence as the chairman of the Republican National Committee, helping tip Congress toward the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections. In 2004, he was elected governor of the Magnolia State.

But more than anything, it has been Barbour’s success as a lobbyist and fundraiser that has earned him a place at the head of the GOP table—and which could come back to haunt him as a presidential candidate.

In 1997, when he was the RNC chair, Barbour was accused of breaking campaign-finance rules for handing over millions to Americans for Tax Reform in the final stretch of the 1996 campaign. (Grover Norquist, the group’s head, was one of the Republican strategists to greet Barbour in Washington on Monday.) He also solicited money for the GOP from Hong Kong businessmen. He raised over $20 million from tobacco companies for Republican candidates from 1997 to 2002.

While Barbour has been secure in the governor’s mansion, his nephews have run a Jackson lobbying firm. They and their firm, Capital Resources, were among the many Barbour friends and associates to benefit from the governor’s ability to pull in $15 billion to rebuild the state’s Katrina-damaged coast, according to a Bloomberg report. And the governor’s former lobbying firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers LLC, has also seen profits by representing groups seeking post-Katrina business.

And there’s reason to question whether the lobbying firm that still bears Barbour’s name is truly “former.” According to two reports, he has collected profits from the company while serving as governor, despite promising to sever all ties. Two summers ago, I was one of a pair of hapless interns assigned to sit outside the door of the firm’s Washington office. Sure enough, one afternoon Barbour himself showed up, stuck around for an hour and half and then drove away down Pennsylvania Avenue.

So what are the chances of Barbour maneuvering for a shot at an office further down that avenue?

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This week Republican politicians and pollsters seemed to like the idea of Barbour going for it. “I think he’d be a strong candidate,” Maine Senator Susan Collins told CQ Weekly.

The last presidential campaign may feel as distant as the next appears, but the fate of Fred Thompson, another “country lawyer” from the South, might provide an object lesson in how Haley Barbour would fare. Voters never seemed to take to Thompson, one major reason being his own lobbying past and the questionable way his sons benefited from their relationship to the senator. Sounds very familiar.

The Sanford debacle could turn out worse than imagined for Republicans. As the spotlight moves to Barbour, if only briefly, even the GOP faithful may not like what they see.

The Daily Beast's Mark McKinnon on why Haley Barbour could go all the way in 2012.

Samuel P. Jacobs is an intern at the Daily Beast. He has written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.