Barbour touts conservative credentials in N.H.

GOP contender has yet to make official decision

Mississippi governor Haley Barbour at Riley’s Gun Shop yesterday in Hooksett, N.H. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour at Riley’s Gun Shop yesterday in Hooksett, N.H. (Jim Cole/Associated Press)
By Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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HOOKSETT, N.H. — With all the subtlety of a howitzer, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi posed for photos at a gun shop yesterday during a two-day trip to New Hampshire aimed at gauging interest in him as a presidential contender and telling prospective voters he is one of them despite his Southern drawl.

First at an intimate house party, then over breakfast during a courtesy call on the mayor of Manchester, and, finally, amid racks of guns and shelves of ammunition at Riley’s Gun Shop, Barbour expressed a kinship for the politics and personality of the lead presidential primary state.

He also differentiated himself from potential rivals, even if he did not single them out by name.

The gun stop visit, which occurred in front of a pack of 22 reporters and only a handful of prospective voters, recalled former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s brag four years ago that he was “pretty much a lifelong hunter’’ despite not owning guns and repeatedly talking about just two outings.

“My wife likes to hunt,’’ Barbour said of his wife of nearly 40 years, Marsha, during an earlier stop at the Chez Vachon restaurant in Manchester. “One thing we can do together.’’

Barbour jabbed at former US House speaker Newt Gingrich, saying the GOP failed to reclaim the presidency in 1996 because it did not make clear to voters that it did not have control of the government, though “some Republicans helped them think that.’’

And contrasting his background to relative neophytes on the national stage, such as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Barbour highlighted his own baptism by fire overseeing Mississippi’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“I have had experiences with crises that not every governor has to deal with — and I pray that they don’t,’’ he said.

Barbour has promised a decision on his candidacy by the end of the month, and some of the people he encountered relished their role in helping the country vet a potential president.

“I know nothing about him. I want to know about him. I wanted to be educated. I think the whole Republican Party is a blank slate,’’ said Cindy Martin of Bow, before she met Barbour at a gathering Wednesday night at the home of former state GOP chairwoman Jayne Millerick.

Barbour was shown around the state by Michael Dennehy, a veteran Republican political operative who staged a coup in 2000 when he helped Senator John McCain of Arizona upset the governor of Texas, George W. Bush, in the state’s GOP primary.

The Mississippi governor alternately asked a newcomer’s questions and exhibited a veteran’s perspective, noting that he had been in the state previously as chairman of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association.

He also strummed at the heartstrings of diehard Republicans, recalling his tenure as political director in the White House under President Reagan and the party icon’s view of using military power.

“When he used it, it was overwhelming, it was brief, and we had a victory strategy and an exit strategy,’’ said Barbour.

The governor also was not beyond claiming a local connection. At Chez Vachon, he told a table that included Mayor Ted Gatsas of Manchester that he played on a two-time Mississippi state high school championship team with future Red Sox player Jerry Moses.

He said that cemented his bond as Moses moved onto the team. “We had always been Red Sox fans, Ted Williams,’’ Barbour said.

Moses, a New Hampshire resident, attended Barbour’s final event in Manchester.

More substantively, Barbour said congressional leaders had “hit a single in the first inning’’ by agreeing with President Obama last week to cut $38 billion in federal spending.

He said he generally supported the House Republican budget proposal unveiled by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and he called for more cuts in nondefense discretionary spending, including at the Environmental Protection Agency, which he argued has enjoyed robust budget growth.

Barbour said the idea of returning to 2008 spending levels “is absolutely correct and can be done.’’

Even defense spending should be a candidate for cuts, he said, adding, “If you’ve ever walked through the building, you know we can save money at the Pentagon.’’

In addition, the governor said, “You cannot have a real spending reduction or real spending control unless you deal with entitlements, and that’s just a fact.’’

He noted his home state’s huge savings by requiring Medicaid recipients to simply reverify their eligibility, which cut the Mississippi rolls from 750,000 people to 580,000 people. Barbour estimated that a similar program nationally could save $25 billion annually.

On the federal universal health care law passed last year, Barbour highlighted how he used his gubernatorial prerogative to hire outside counsel and join Florida’s lawsuit against what he termed “Obamacare’’ after his own state’s attorney general refused.

He said a single program for vastly differing states is unworkable, adding that true health care overhaul requires transparency on prices and patient outcomes, as well as for consumers “to have skin in the game’’ by helping to select and pay for private insurance.

Glen Johnson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.