Salena Zito
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Republican Haley Barbour sat in one of those beige hotel meeting rooms that fill this city of endless meetings. Nearing the end of his second and final term as Mississippi’s governor, he hasn’t formally declared but clearly is on the verge of running for president.

Whether you sit across from him or watch him speak to a crowd, you are instantly aware that he is very comfortable in his own skin. His confidence is inviting, not arrogant.

Born and raised in Yazoo City, Miss., he has appeared on the national stage as chairman of the Republican National Committee (during the 1994 sweep of the House and Senate) and the Republican Governors Association (which won 31 governorships between 2009 and 2010). He guided both in mammoth fundraising.

He was a political aide in Ronald Reagan’s White House, and he was considered by both political sides to be a brilliant lobbyist.

“Haley was a star football player and baseball player,” said one-time Red Sox prodigy Gerry Moses, recalling his former teammate and friend. “We played both sports together growing up, even played in the Little League World Series together. He was the pitcher, I was the catcher.”

They won the first game but lost the next two; Barbour was 11 and Moses, 12.

Barbour said he’s learned important lessons with every setback: “It’s in those moments when you lose … where your character grows and you become a better, stronger person.”

His leadership was tested August 29, 2005, 20 months after becoming governor. Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi, killing more than 200, destroying thousands of homes and leaving more than 90,000 homeless.

It was “the greatest challenge to the state,” said James Stewart, a political science professor at Tougaloo (Miss.) College, and Barbour won “a lot of points for his organization and leadership during this crisis.”

The difference between a skilled communicator and a gifted one is that the former can’t function outside of a prepared setting; the latter can function anywhere. Barbour is the latter.

Yet Barbour also tends to put his foot in his mouth, Stewart said, something he must avoid if he ascends to the national stage.

Last week Barbour raised the presidential speculation with speeches in Chicago (where he said President Obama shows little understanding of how our economy works) in and Davenport, Iowa.

Despite Washington media claims that Iowa Republican caucuses focus on social issues, the economy is what really drives passions, according to Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn.

“Iowa Republicans have seen their ranks grow dramatically,” Strawn said, “and a lot of that growth has come from Tea Party activists who were motivated solely on spending issues.”

Barbour thinks that “people are downright scared. Everything seems uncertain, especially the economy.”

In his career in the majors, Moses caught Gaylord Perry’s spit balls, took batting lessons from Ted Williams, and went to the All-Star Game. He said he will be honored to campaign for Barbour if he runs for president.

“People don’t know who Haley is,” he said. “When they do, and when they understand what he stands for, they’re going … to pay attention to what he has to say.”

The Deep South is the one geographical area that has never sent a Republican governor to the White House. Political analyst Isaac Wood believes a “Southern nominee could make more sense for the GOP this year …given the new census count and added electoral votes beneath the Mason-Dixon line.”

Yet Barbour said that what defines him is not geography but the values instilled by the mother who raised him and two brothers after his father died, when Barbour was just 2 years old.

“She was with us at every turn, involved in every moment of our lives … in fact, she was the first female president of the Yazoo City booster club for the high school football team,” he said.

Barbour said he will decide next month if he is running for president. It’s a crowded field, in a competitive year, and many of the potential candidates are his friends.

Still, he wisely has placed feet on the ground in South Carolina, started visiting Iowa and hiring staff in New Hampshire, to see if his message and skills are what GOP voters want.

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Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.