Barbour endorsement now a big get for GOP presidential hopefuls

Republican presidential hopefuls are making a play for Haley Barbour’s endorsement — and the organizational and fundraising prowess that comes along with it.

The Mississippi governor is known as one of the savviest and most seasoned operators in the Republican Party, with a vast Rolodex of top GOP donors and organizers.

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His announcement Monday that he would not run for president came as a surprise to many but quickly turned Barbour into a major asset for another contender.

“You’re going to see Chris Christie-like courting,” predicted GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked on Barbour’s 2007 gubernatorial campaign. 

Noting the litany of likely presidential candidates who have gone out of their way to meet with the New Jersey governor in the hopes of winning his backing, O’Connell argued the Mississippi governor is now “the most important Republican not running for president.”

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was one of the first 2012 contenders to publicly court Barbour, lauding him as someone who has “done a lot for the conservative movement and the Republican Party over decades.”

“I hope we can get him on board my campaign — exploratory, at the moment,” Pawlenty said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday. “And, hopefully, if we finalize that decision, we can get him to support our effort. But he’s going to be a sought-after commodity, both politically and on policy levels, for a lot of years to come.” 

The former Minnesota governor has a pipeline to Barbour — former Republican Governors Association executive director Nick Ayers is managing Pawlenty’s campaign. Ayers was Barbour’s top aide at the RGA when Barbour was its chairman.

Barbour displayed his fundraising prowess during his tenure at the RGA, where he raised more than $115 million in the 2010 cycle, and when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 90s, where he set fundraising records.

 Barbour could also command the loyalty of key swing-state governors he helped elect last year. The RGA poured millions into competitive gubernatorial contests including those in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

In the aftermath of Barbour’s decision not to run next year, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels could be the biggest beneficiary. He and Barbour have been friends since they both worked in the Reagan administration, and many observers expect that Barbour would back Daniels if he ends up running for the GOP nomination.

In a statement reacting to Barbour’s decision, Daniels said “he’d have made a great president” and added that he would have been “proud to try to help him had he chosen to run.”

But Republican fundraiser Fred Malek, who helped Barbour raise millions last cycle at the RGA, said it’s a “big leap” to assume that Barbour’s backing is behind someone who has yet to announce his 2012 plans. 

“Anybody would be well-served to have him onboard their campaign, and I think everyone knows that,” Malek said. “Whoever he does end up backing, they need to put him in a leadership role.”

Another Republican with ties to the Mississippi governor noted that Barbour stayed out of the 2008 GOP presidential primary, something Barbour has indicated he’s highly unlikely to do this time around.

“I don’t think that he’ll pick a horse right away,” said the operative. “But I certainly think he wants to be a part of the process of determining the GOP nominee, and I get the sense that he’s serious about that.”