Our occasional correspondent Joel Mowbray has filed this report from the Herzliya Conference that just concluded at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel:
HERZLIYA, ISRAEL – One of the less-mentioned GOP hopefuls, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, just finished a tour of the Holy Land this week with the Republican Jewish Coalition. The trip alone should be enough to suggest he’s poised to run for the White House, but his speech yesterday at the highest-profile annual political conference in Israel indicates that he would be formidable–and almost certainly in the top tier.
Speaking to a packed auditorium at the Herzliya Conference at the prestigious Interdisciplinary Center, Gov. Barbour developed an immediate rapport with the audience, a mixture of political and diplomatic elites from Israel, America and Europe. While he has long been a talented speaker, his style has often been more stand-up comedian than serious politician.
Displaying an agility that often alludes even top politicians, Barbour was able to glide comfortably into the right tone for such an audience. The governor from the Deep South opened with a self-deprecating line which elicited a hearty laugh that disarmed the crowd, saying that he knew people in the international audience were waiting for an “interpreter for English.”
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin gave a harsher assessment of Barbour’s speech, but it seems her criticism was rooted at least in part in the lack of new policy positions it contained. True, Gov. Barbour has delivered more impassioned and more substantive speeches, but most in the audience seemed genuinely interested in and connected to him.
This was confirmed by follow-up interviews with over 20 people afterward, including roughly a dozen Americans. Style points often matter greatly in this type of setting, and on that count, he clearly came across as statesmanlike. After a discussion about how the U.S. could improve its domestic energy production by emulating Israel’s recent successes, Gov. Barbour stressed that he would not criticize U.S. foreign policy while overseas.
Although he made a reference to being a Christian and the “tens of millions of Christians who stand with American Jews in supporting Israel,” his case for the special relationship with the Jewish state was not based on the Bible or anything religious. Instead, he spoke of the strategic benefits America enjoys from its close alliance with a tiny nation that has become a world-leading innovator in civilian and military technology.
In a wide-open field, a governor from the South with an enviable history of success as his state’s chief executive and a powerful national network would be legitimate as soon as he announces. The question, as it seems to be with many of the potential candidates, is whether he will announce.
Gov. Barbour has said in the past that to see if he was interested in the White House, you should look at his waistline. For what it’s worth, he appeared to be a bit trimmer in Israel–though still not exactly svelte. But if he continues to slim down and avoids major missteps, expect him to be a serious contender for the GOP nomination.
I can’t entirely reconcile Joel’s report with Jennifer Rubin’s biting assessment, I encourage readers to check that out as well. I also have a hard time seeing how Governor Barbour would seriously contend for the Republican nomination. Republicans want to win, and Barbour doesn’t match up well with Obama.