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Image: Haley Barbour
Steve Yeater  /  AP
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour takes questions from reporters during the California Republican Convention in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, March 19, 2011.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/26/2011 12:03:33 PM ET 2011-04-26T16:03:33

Haley Barbour ultimately decided not to run for president after concluding that Barack Obama will be too tough to beat in a general election race, according to two advisers familiar with the Mississippi governor’s decision making.

Barbour "wanted to run, he would have loved it,” said one of the advisers (who both asked for anonymity). But while he saw a path to winning the Republican nomination, the governor and his inner circle became gun-shy when they considered Barbour’s prospects of prevailing against Obama and a likely united Democratic party behind him in the general election, the advisers said.

“It would have required an inside straight,” said one adviser.

Barbour and his team were convinced that he could emerge as the conservative alternative to presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney in the GOP primary contest and ultimately win the party’s nomination. But beating Obama looked far more problematic.

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The only two incumbents to lose the presidency since Herbert Hoover were Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. In both instances, one of the Barbour advisers noted, there were common circumstances: both men faced ideologically-motivated primary challenges from within their own party and popular third party candidates snagged critical votes in the general election.

Story: Barbour rules out 2012 presidential run

Neither appears likely to be the case this year, giving Obama built in advantages in running for re-election. There is also the formidable fundraising advantage that Obama now appears likely to have. “He’s going to have $100 million in the bank before any of the Republican candidates catch their breath,” said one of the Barbour advisers.

The hard-headed analysis by Barbour and his top advisers about the difficulties of beating Obama could be depressing news for other GOP candidates preparing to mount a campaign for president.

In Barbour’s case, it was complicated by his own potential political baggage — he’s a career Washington lobbyist with a southern drawl who has been criticized for making remarks that some deemed racially insensitive. Both were problems that “would have to be managed,” said one of the advisers.

Read more from The Isikoff Files

But a general election race against a sitting president, Barbour and his advisers concluded, would ultimately have to be about the policies and faults of the incumbent—it couldn’t afford to become bogged down on the problems of the challenger.

There were particular concerns that Barbour would be too much on the defensive over racial issues, creating a poisonous atmosphere in trying to unseat the country’s first African-American president, the second adviser said. “The press would have made this about race.”

Barbour himself made the problem even bigger last year with several moves, including appearing to defend the record of the state’s Citizens Councils – groups of white businessmen who fought to preserve Jim Crow segregation — and declaring “Confederate Heritage Month” in the state.

Story: Obama campaign pushes underdog spirit for 2012

Also under the microscope: his ties to BGR, the major Washington lobbyist firm he founded. Critics and potential rivals were preparing to pound Barbour over the issue, including questions about his financial disclosures and whether he fully disentangled himself from the firm after being elected as Mississippi governor as he publicly contended. But Barbour had dismissed questions about the issue, even touting his skills as a former “government relations consultant," insisting the experience would make him a better commander in chief.

Barbour's announcement Monday stunned many political insiders. It also surprised many on his political team around the country — most of whom heard the news during an afternoon conference call. In his official statement, Barbour offered little insight into why he chose not to run after spending months testing the political waters and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for political action committees he controls.

Calling it a “difficult, personal decision,” Barbour said only that a candidacy would require an “all-consuming” ten year commitment and that his supporters would expect “no less than absolute fire in the belly,” adding “I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required.”

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Video: Gingrich vs. Barbour

  1. Closed captioning of: Gingrich vs. Barbour

    >>> several 2012 republican potential hopefuls have gathered in des moines , iowa today at the conservative principals conference. so far we've heard from haley barbour , newt gingrich , and michele bachmann . our political reporter is in des moines and joins us there. set the stage for me here. you have a saturday, big names in the party, and they're in iowa. is there a level of excitement and participation there?

    >> reporter: absolutely. michele bachmann gave a speech right after the lunch break and really fired up the crowd way more than anybody else who we've seen here today between a haley barbour and newt gingrich . kind of polite applause. they were well received, i'd say, but nothing like you saw out of michele bachmann cracking jokes talking about how i am an iowan because she was born here, doelg out compliments telling them how smart and intelligent they were and even good looking.

    >> you can win a crowd with compliments for sure. but i'm curious if the people who are there in attendance have been prodding bachmann or haley barbour or any of the others there on when they will make it official. the clock is ticking.

    >> reporter: well, michele bachmann came really close to making it official. she had a very provocative line which she said before at the very end. she said, i'm in. we're in. you're in. you know, in what? in for what?

    >> yeah. in what?

    >> she said earlier this week that she is in, she said earlier this week she is in for the conversation. she wants to be influential in 2012 . she's considering a bid. folks that i talked to close to the bachmann camp a week ago said she is leaning toward a bid and would decide sometime in june and she possibly could make a run. you know, going to events like this testing the waters, really key for early candidates potentially thinking about a bid, who might launch something to test their support that they could get. if today is any judge, you know, she really got a lot of support. more so than anybody else we heard on stage.

    >> i guess as you pointed out she could consider it home turf and that always certainly could help in making you a popular person in the building. we'll see what happens next. they have to stop dipping the toe and jump in the water here

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