Haley Barbour 2012: How His Wife Vetoed Presidential Bid

The Mississippi governor lined up a team for 2012 and lost weight, but his wife never jumped on the presidential bandwagon—and now he's out of the race. Jill Lawrence on this year's campaign game changer: family sentiment.

The Mississippi governor lined up a team for 2012 and lost weight, but his wife never jumped on the presidential bandwagon—and now he’s out of the race. Jill Lawrence on this year’s campaign game changer: family sentiment. Plus, gallery of wives who said “no.”

Don’t discount the power of pillow talk in shaping the nation’s politics. Haley Barbour is the latest politician to abandon plans for a 2012 presidential bid in the face of strong family hostility toward the idea—and he may not be the last.

The Mississippi governor had given every indication that he was planning a full-scale run for the Republican nomination, from losing weight and lining up a team to testing a message and visiting key states. In withdrawing on Monday, he talked about lacking sufficient drive for a two-year campaign and perhaps eight years in office.

Photos: Wives Who Said ‘No’

But listen to the language of his wife, Marsha, in a recent TV interview that made clear she didn’t want him to run. “It horrifies me,” she said of a presidential campaign and the “huge sacrifice” it would mean for her family. “You would commit to 10 years, which would be two years of campaigning, then you run to win, so it would be four years. Then you would want to run again—so it’s 10 years, and it’s the last part of our productive lives.”

Marsha Barbour waited a long time to live in the same place as her husband. For years she raised two sons in Yazoo City while Haley Barbour lived in Washington to be political director of the Reagan White House, start a lobbying firm and restaurant, and serve as chairman of the Republican National Committee. For much of that time, he made it home just once a month.

“The last four years have been the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Marsha Barbour told me in a 1996 interview for USA Today, referring to the RNC job. “I haven’t really been that much of a part of it. He’s been so busy and so consumed. He hasn’t been home for an anniversary in a long time, or a birthday.” She added, only half joking, “The next 11 years will be my turn.”

Her 11 years arguably didn’t start until 2003, when Barbour won the first of his two terms as governor and moved back home. Since then Marsha Barbour has come into her own as first lady, winning praise for her role after Hurricane Katrina and her work on children’s programs. One of their two sons, Sterling, sounded like his mom in a private email to conservative publisher Bill Kristol, writing that he was not wild about his father running. “I am a private person and don’t want him to run,” he wrote, though he added he would be his father’s “biggest supporter” if the governor went ahead.

Apologizing in his statement for disappointing his aides and allies, Barbour said he could not guarantee “absolute fire in the belly” over the long haul. Yet Barbour never has lacked that fire before, whether as a Reagan aide, as a powerful lobbyist, as RNC chairman, as head of the Republican Governors Association, or as a likely contender questioning President Obama on energy, economics, and the drawn-out war in Afghanistan.

He might have overcome his drawl, lobbying past, and imperceptible poll ratings to win the GOP nomination. But his age (63) and civil rights stumbles ( speaking favorably of the segregationist White Citizens Council, for instance) would have offered a damaging contrast with Obama (49 and black). And Barbour’s state, the nation’s poorest, was already starting to draw negative attention.

Barbour said he could not guarantee “absolute fire in the belly” over the long haul. Yet he never has lacked that fire before.

One Republican close to Barbour described his decision this way: “The bottom line is he loves his family, loves Marsha, loves his kids very, very deeply. If he would have said ‘this is what I really want to do,’ they would have been there 100 percent. It was kind of his turn to put them first. Simple as that.”

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Family sentiment is emerging as a real factor this year. Like Barbour, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota looked like a contender—and then his wife, Kimberley, read Game Change, the often painful tell-all book about candidates, spouses, and tensions on the 2008 campaign trail. “It was not helpful,” Thune joked. Less than three weeks later, he decided against running.

At least one other GOP prospect has gone public with his wife’s antipathy for politics. “Right from the start she told me, ‘I don’t do the whole politician’s spouse thing,’” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said of his wife, Cheri, in an interview with The Weekly Standard. “She’s not apolitical. She’s not unpolitical. She’s antipolitical. I told her I would never ask her to do anything she didn’t want to do. And I haven’t. And she hasn’t.”

Daniels, a friend of Barbour’s, says he’ll decide his course after his legislature adjourns April 29. Cheri Daniels, meanwhile, has agreed to speak at a May 12 state party dinner—a debut appearance that may or may not have larger significance.

Campaigning in a grueling presidential race, and possibly serving as first lady, is an enormous favor to ask of someone who is “antipolitical.” But Daniels has left herself wiggle room with relatively mild public comments that leave the door ajar.

She would not be the first reluctant spouse to come around. Michelle Obama started out the same way. “She did not like politics. She did not want him to run for office. I know this because Barack told me,” lawyer Newton Minow told Michelle Obama biographer Liza Mundy.

Haley Barbour could yet end up back in the town where he spent so much of his career. He had barely announced his decision when Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, tweeted that he would now head a “ Haley Barbour for Chief of Staff national draft committee.” Maybe this time Marsha Barbour—spared the cruelties of a campaign and the lightning-rod role of national first lady—will be part of the plan.

Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for PoliticsDaily.com. Her other positions have included national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.