Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has announced he will not run for president, saying he doesn't think he has the “fire in the belly.” It's a decision that will have key implications for rest of the Republican primary field.
As a potential candidate, Barbour brought with him great upside – he brought governing experience, policy chops, an unrivaled rolodex and fundraising operation. Yet he also had great vulnerabilities as a former lobbyist and white guy from the deep south.
With him out of the way, it does a few things. One is that it will fuel speculation that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will run. While both have denied that their decisions were contingent on each other, the two have been close friends for decades (Daniels was actually Barbour's boss when they both worked during the Reagan years). If Daniels' decides to run now and Barbour helps, it would provide him with a huge boost. Whatever Barbour's vulnerabilities as a potential candidate, there is no better person another candidate would want in his corner – providing him contacts, helping with fundraising, organization, giving savvy political advice, etc. While Daniels' statements over the past year, especially regarding a “truce” on social issues, have hurt him with the Republican base, having the backing of Barbour would probably make pundits rethink Daniels viability.
If Daniels chooses not to run, and/or Barbour stays uninvolved in the primary altogether, then Barbour's exit helps Mitt Romney. Romney, obviously, has a huge liability of his own in the form of RomneyCare. But what he does have going for him is the inertia that often makes Republicans nominate the person who is seen as “next in line” or the one who is perceived as “having paid their dues” into the party. This is how the GOP ended up with candidates such as Sens. Bob Dole and John McCain. With Barbour in the race, it could be argued that he earned that claim, but without him, Romney may end up benefiting from this tendency. Also, without Barbour, Romney may be able to gain a larger comparative advantage over his rivals in terms of money and organization.
To the extent that it potentially helps Romney and Daniels, Barbour's exit hurts Tim Pawlenty, but ultimately I don't think it will alter his chances much. What Pawlenty has going for him is that while he may not fire people up, he doesn't anger people or have flaws as fatal as some of the other candidates. Thus, he could win as the default choice that everybody can live with. The rest of the field is more of a wild card.
All of this said, the Barbour news was a bit surprising. In recent months, he's given all the signs of wanting to run – from hiring staff to visiting early primary states. But ultimately he wasn't up to it. Read his full statement here.