Mississippi's Haley Barbour, GOP Heavyweight

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors' Association, has been described as the "most powerful Republican in American politics." In a wide-ranging conversation, host Scott Simon talks with Barbour about Mississippi's recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill and the significance of conservative figures like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, may be the most powerful man in the Republican Party right now. As head of the Republican Governor's Association, he has campaign aid to dispense in an atmosphere of rising public opinion polls. And as a popular two-term governor, he's considered a possible candidate for president.

He's led his state through the recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and he's had to contend with the Gulf Coast oil spill. Governor Haley Barbour joins us now from his office in the state capital of Jackson, Mississippi. Governor, thanks for being with us.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): Well, Scott, thank you very much.

SIMON: Governor, you made a reporting trip last week to Bay St. Louis - we've gotten awful fond of it - and the folks in Bay St. Louis and Waveland and Biloxi and Gulfport told us that if they had to start ranking their problems now, all of them said number one is insurance. They say insurance rates are too high and on top of everything else is preventing people from returning. Do you agree?

Mr. BARBOUR: We all knew that insurance premiums would go up after Katrina because everybody was going to have to build back to the hurricane code outside of the flood plain, and that the houses were just going to be more expensive than the houses that they replaced. We can't do anything about that. But one thing that we could do and have been trying very hard to do is to get the government to require that homeowners be allowed to buy insurance that includes both wind and water - damage from wind storm, damage from storm surge - because that's not currently the case.

SIMON: There's a group called Follow the Money that lists - you got almost half a million dollars from the insurance industry when you ran for reelection in 2007. Nothing illegal about it, obviously, or unethical, but does that affect the thinking of any public official?

Mr. BARBOUR: Well, the first thing is, I'm surprised to hear that. But in my two campaigns for governor and my career as Republican National Committee chairman and chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, I have raised an enormous amount of money, in the tens of millions of dollars. And what I find is people give you money who agree with you. Very few people give you money to try to change your mind.

SIMON: You used to be a lobbyist, right, governor?

Mr. BARBOUR: I did.

SIMON: Is that...

Mr. BARBOUR: And I'm proud of it. Had a career that I look back on with a lot of pride, frankly.

SIMON: Well, I ask now because, look - and I know public opinion polls show that we people in journalism are probably less popular than lobbyists - but is it - if you run for national office, is that any kind of a drawback? Do you have to get over that hump with people, 'cause it's so routine for politicians and for that matter people in the news industry to inveigh against lobbyists. What do you say?

Mr. BARBOUR: Scott, I'm a lobbyist, a lawyer and a politician. That's the trifecta. People said that when I ran for governor. My opponent who I defeated the first time spent millions of dollars on TV advertising attacking me for being a lobbyist and attacking my clients. You know, he was the sitting governor and he lost and I won.

And I think a lot of Mississippians were very happy in the fall of 2005, after Katrina, that when I went to Washington to try to lobby for the federal government to do some unprecedented things to help Mississippi and Mississippians, I think a lot of people are happy they had a governor that had some experience doing that.

SIMON: What do you make of Glenn Beck? Is he, for lack of a better word, the source of inspiration for your party as far as you're concerned right now?

Mr. BARBOUR: We do have people in the entertainment business and the news business who are supporters of lots of things that the Republicans are for, whether it's Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly or whomever. However, none of those people speak for the Republican Party. They do say a lot of things that many Republicans and most Republicans agree with, but there's a difference between speaking for the party and saying a lot of things that most Republicans agree with.

SIMON: And where do you put Governor Palin, former Governor Palin?

Mr. BARBOUR: Well, I served with her and I liked her when I served with her. First of all, she's a lot smarter than the news media gives her credit for. And my exposure to her as governor -she's a bona fide oil and gas expert, for instance. And I have no idea what her ambitions or plans are.

SIMON: Does being governor of a state that has had some challenges, obviously, over the last few years, make you more or less eager to go on in public service?

Mr. BARBOUR: If you've had a successful career outside of government, you go into elected office to serve. I certainly never foresaw Katrina or the oil spill or a bunch of other things. But the fact of the matter is that those circumstances made me feel like I got more done than I could - and that I could see results from what I did.

Seeing results and making a difference to me makes me more willing to consider further public service.

SIMON: Governor, thanks so much for all of your time.

Mr. BARBOUR: Great, Scott. Take care.

SIMON: Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi.

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